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Computer viruses

Computer viruses are mysterious and grab our attention. On the one hand, viruses show us how vulnerable we are. A properly engineered virus can have an amazing effect on the worldwide Internet. On the other hand, they show how sophisticated and interconnected human beings have become.

For example, the things making big news right now are the MSBlaster worm and the SoBig virus. The Melissa virus -- which became a global phenomenon in March 1999 -- was so powerful that it forced Microsoft and a number of other very large companies to completely turn off their e-mail systems until the virus could be contained. The ILOVEYOU virus in 2000 had a similarly devastating effect. That's pretty impressive when you consider that the Melissa and ILOVEYOU viruses are incredibly simple.

In this article, we will discuss viruses -- both "traditional" viruses and the newer e-mail viruses -- so that you can learn how they work and also understand how to protect yourself. Viruses in general are on the wane, but occasionally a person finds a new way to create one, and that's when they make the news.

Types of Infection
When you listen to the news, you hear about many different forms of electronic infection. The most common are:

  • Viruses - A virus is a small piece of software that piggybacks on real programs. For example, a virus might attach itself to a program such as a spreadsheet program. Each time the spreadsheet program runs, the virus runs, too, and it has the chance to reproduce (by attaching to other programs) or wreak havoc.

  • E-mail viruses - An e-mail virus moves around in e-mail messages, and usually replicates itself by automatically mailing itself to dozens of people in the victim's e-mail address book.

  • Worms - A worm is a small piece of software that uses computer networks and security holes to replicate itself. A copy of the worm scans the network for another machine that has a specific security hole. It copies itself to the new machine using the security hole, and then starts replicating from there, as well.

  • Trojan horses - A Trojan horse is simply a computer program. The program claims to do one thing (it may claim to be a game) but instead does damage when you run it (it may erase your hard disk). Trojan horses have no way to replicate automatically.

What's a "Virus"?
Computer viruses are called viruses because they share some of the traits of biological viruses. A computer virus passes from computer to computer like a biological virus passes from person to person.

There are similarities at a deeper level, as well. A biological virus is not a living thing. A virus is a fragment of DNA inside a protective jacket. Unlike a cell, a virus has no way to do anything or to reproduce by itself -- it is not alive. Instead, a biological virus must inject its DNA into a cell. The viral DNA then uses the cell's existing machinery to reproduce itself. In some cases, the cell fills with new viral particles until it bursts, releasing the virus. In other cases, the new virus particles bud off the cell one at a time, and the cell remains alive.

A computer virus shares some of these traits. A computer virus must piggyback on top of some other program or document in order to get executed. Once it is running, it is then able to infect other programs or documents. Obviously, the analogy between computer and biological viruses stretches things a bit, but there are enough similarities that the name sticks.

What's a "Worm"?
A worm is a computer program that has the ability to copy itself from machine to machine. Worms normally move around and infect other machines through computer networks. Using a network, a worm can expand from a single copy incredibly quickly. For example, the Code Red worm replicated itself over 250,000 times in approximately nine hours on July 19, 2001.

A worm usually exploits some sort of security hole in a piece of software or the operating system. For example, the Slammer worm (which caused mayhem in January 2003) exploited a hole in Microsoft's SQL server. This article offers a fascinating look inside Slammer's tiny (376 byte) program.

Code Red
Worms use up computer time and network bandwidth when they are replicating, and they often have some sort of evil intent. A
worm called Code Red made huge headlines in 2001. Experts predicted that this worm could clog the Internet so effectively that things would completely grind to a halt.

The Code Red worm slowed down Internet traffic when it began to replicate itself, but not nearly as badly as predicted. Each copy of the worm scanned the Internet for Windows NT or Windows 2000 servers that do not have the Microsoft security patch installed. Each time it found an unsecured server, the worm copied itself to that server. The new copy then scanned for other servers to infect. Depending on the number of unsecured servers, a worm could conceivably create hundreds of thousands of copies.

The Code Red worm was designed to do three things:

  • Replicate itself for the first 20 days of each month

  • Replace Web pages on infected servers with a page that declares "Hacked by Chinese"

  • Launch a concerted attack on the White House Web server in an attempt to overwhelm it

The most common version of Code Red is a variation, typically referred to as a mutated strain, of the original Ida Code Red that replicated itself on July 19, 2001. According to the National Infrastructure Protection Center:

The Ida Code Red Worm, which was first reported by eEye Digital Security, is taking advantage of known vulnerabilities in the Microsoft IIS Internet Server Application Program Interface (ISAPI) service. Un-patched systems are susceptible to a "buffer overflow" in the Idq.dll, which permits the attacker to run embedded code on the affected system. This memory resident worm, once active on a system, first attempts to spread itself by creating a sequence of random IP addresses to infect unprotected web servers. Each worm thread will then inspect the infected computer's time clock. The NIPC has determined that the trigger time for the DOS execution of the Ida Code Red Worm is at 0:00 hours, GMT on July 20, 2001. This is 8:00 PM, EST.

Upon successful infection, the worm would wait for the appointed hour and connect to the www.whitehouse.gov domain. This attack would consist of the infected systems simultaneously sending 100 connections to port 80 of www.whitehouse.gov (198.137.240.91).

The U.S. government changed the IP address of www.whitehouse.gov to circumvent that particular threat from the worm and issued a general warning about the worm, advising users of Windows NT or Windows 2000 Web servers to make sure they have installed the security patch.

How They Spread
Early viruses were pieces of code attached to a common program like a popular game or a popular word processor. A person might download an infected game from a bulletin board and run it. A virus like this is a small piece of code embedded in a larger, legitimate program. Any virus is designed to run first when the legitimate program gets executed. The virus loads itself into memory and looks around to see if it can find any other programs on the disk. If it can find one, it modifies it to add the virus's code to the unsuspecting program. Then the virus launches the "real program." The user really has no way to know that the virus ever ran. Unfortunately, the virus has now reproduced itself, so two programs are infected. The next time either of those programs gets executed, they infect other programs, and the cycle continues.

If one of the infected programs is given to another person on a floppy disk, or if it is uploaded to a bulletin board, then other programs get infected. This is how the virus spreads.

The spreading part is the infection phase of the virus. Viruses wouldn't be so violently despised if all they did was replicate themselves. Unfortunately, most viruses also have some sort of destructive attack phase where they do some damage. Some sort of trigger will activate the attack phase, and the virus will then "do something" -- anything from printing a silly message on the screen to erasing all of your data. The trigger might be a specific date, or the number of times the virus has been replicated, or something similar.

As virus creators got more sophisticated, they learned new tricks. One important trick was the ability to load viruses into memory so they could keep running in the background as long as the computer remained on. This gave viruses a much more effective way to replicate themselves. Another trick was the ability to infect the boot sector on floppy disks and hard disks. The boot sector is a small program that is the first part of the operating system that the computer loads. The boot sector contains a tiny program that tells the computer how to load the rest of the operating system. By putting its code in the boot sector, a virus can guarantee it gets executed. It can load itself into memory immediately, and it is able to run whenever the computer is on. Boot sector viruses can infect the boot sector of any floppy disk inserted in the machine, and on college campuses where lots of people share machines they spread like wildfire.

In general, both executable and boot sector viruses are not very threatening any more. The first reason for the decline has been the huge size of today's programs. Nearly every program you buy today comes on a compact disc. Compact discs cannot be modified, and that makes viral infection of a CD impossible. The programs are so big that the only easy way to move them around is to buy the CD. People certainly can't carry applications around on a floppy disk like they did in the 1980s, when floppies full of programs were traded like baseball cards. Boot sector viruses have also declined because operating systems now protect the boot sector.


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