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Computer Virus Research

December 21, 2008

As part of being a well-rounded programmer, I dabble in all sorts of technical things. One of my areas of interest is computer virus research. In the last thirty years, I have witnessed a large number of changes to this industry, and I find myself compelled to write a little bit about it today after reading about a couple of courses offered at the University of Calgary.

As it exists today, computer virus defense is wide collection of software programs and support networks which are offered to companies and users for the sole purpose of protecting their data from loss, damage, or theft from a myriad of small computer programs called computer viruses. These programs must have the ability to replicate (either a copy of themselves or an enhanced version) and which often carry a payload. The means by which a computer virus can replicate are complicated and often involve details of the operating system. In addition to preventing virus outbreaks from occurring, anti-virus software is also used to help prevent service outages and ensure a general level of stability. In other words, they are selling security or at least one form of security, since security in general is a very large net which cannot be cast by only one program. As an aside note, please be aware of the tools you are using for anti-virus protection. With some research and a little education, it’s often not necessary to purchase these programs in the first place.

I am currently reading Peter Szor’s book entitled, The Art of Computer Virus Research and Defense (ISBN-10: 0321304543). I am almost finished the text and I have found the book to be incredibly informative; filled with illustrations and summaries for all sorts of computer virus deployment scenarios, technical information about individual strains, and historical pieces of information as to how the programs evolved and mistakes made by both researchers and virus writers.

Even though I have the skills and the opportunities to do so, I have never written a computer virus for the purposes of deployment, nor do I ever wish to do so, but I can tell you that writing an original computer virus is challenging work; writing a simple virus is easy. Isolating, debugging, and analyzing the virus is also interesting work, albeit somewhat more tedious. Both jobs require similar skill sets, detailed knowledge of and low level access to a specific system.

I used to posit that the best virus writers would be the people who have taken it upon themselves to write the anti-virus software. After all, the best way to ensure the success of a business built on computer virus defense is to construct viruses that can be easily and quickly disarmed by your software. Much to the disappointment of conspiracy theorists, this is probably not the case, since fellow researchers would easily link a pre-mature inoculation with a future virus outbreak if it happened too often to be mere coincidence. However, if your business was based on quick and successful virus resolutions, then timely outbreaks followed by timely cures would seem to solidify the business model. Personally, I think anti-virus researchers are kept busy enough with “naturally” occurring strains to necessitate a manual jump start of the industry. Although that could change as users and technology platforms become more advanced, although the more probably route is the disappearance of the anti-virus industry; we live in a messy world and there may be opportunities for those wanting to leave their mark, even in the face of futuristic technology gambits.

Computer virus writers are plagued, somewhat ironically, by numerous problems with deploying their masterpiece. A computer virus can be written generically so that it can spread to a wider variety of hosts, or it can be written for a specific environment, which can include requirements on the hardware or software being used. Dependencies on software libraries, operating system components, hardware drivers and even specific types of hard-disks are all liabilities and advantages for a virus. They are liabilities because dependencies limit the scope of infection so the virus spreads more slowly, but at the same time, they often enable the virus to replicate, since the virus may be using known vulnerabilities or opportunities within these pieces to deliver the payload or as as means to allow for it to spread.

Virus research, writing, and defense is a fascinating topic. Unfortunately, I find the pomposity, and to some degree the absurdity, in various branches of the industry to be laughable and a little scary at times. In case you haven’t heard, the University of Calgary is offering a course on computer virus research. While I find this to be a refreshing take on education, my hopes are quickly dashed when I read the requirements and the Course Lab Layout (warning PDF monster). Do they think their students are secret agents working in a top secret laboratory? Of course they do, why else would there be security cameras installed in the room, and why do they restrict access to the course syllabus? Well, I’ve got news for the committee who approved the layout of the lab, and who probably approves the students who can attend the course: computer viruses are just pieces of software. That’s right, they’re just software. They don’t have artificially intelligent brains, they can’t get into your computer by the power lines, and they are quite a bit less complicated than your average word processor. This means that any programmer with the desire and a development environment can write a virus, trojan, or any other form of malware. They don’t need to take your course and they don’t need access to your Big Brother Lab.

The absurdity of protecting information which is already publicly available and has been for decades makes me want to laugh out loud and strangle someone at the same time. It’s rather disturbing and I really don’t like the idea of closing doors on knowledge, even if the attempt is futile. The University of Calgary’s computer science department should be ashamed at perpetuating such ignorance within a learning institution, and I am truly disappointed how bureaucratic such systems have become.

Update 12-29-20008: To respond to a verbal conversation I had with a couple of people: I understand why the university placed the security restrictions in the program; they want to validate the program and make it appear legitimate to the community and their peers. That’s fine, but at the same time, it must be acknowledged that the secret to mounting a successful defense against viral software and Internet based attacks is shared knowledge and open avenues for information. Understandably, this information will go both ways, but the virus writer will gain nothing they do not already possess (except the knowledge that we know what they are doing), while the general public may be a little more aware of the problem than they would be without this information.

Indeed, using viral kits and small customization programs can make viral programming easy for the layman or immature programmer, but we shouldn’t be locking away information about these techniques or programming practices simply because the result is something undesirable or easy to dispense. There are real opportunities to learn and disseminate this knowledge today, and the bigger the audience, the larger the opportunities for successful anti-viral software and general consumer awareness which will combine to create the most effective vaccine of all: knowledge.

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