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Chapter: Cryptography and Network Security Principles and Practice : System Security : Malicious Software

Computer or Network Worms

· The Morris Worm · Worm Propagation · Model Recent Worm Attacks · State of Worm Technology · Mobile Phone · Worms Worm Countermeasures


A worm is a program that can replicate itself and send copies from computer to computer across network connections. Upon arrival, the worm may be activated to replicate and propagate again. In addition to propagation, the worm usually performs some unwanted function. An e-mail virus has some of the characteristics of a worm because it propagates itself from system to system. However, we can still classify it as a virus because it uses a document modified to contain viral macro content and requires human action. A worm actively seeks out more machines to infect and each machine that is infected serves as an automated launching pad for attacks on other machines.

The concept of a computer worm was introduced in John Brunner’s 1975 SF novel The Shockwave Rider. The first known worm implementation was done in Xerox Palo Alto Labs in the early 1980s. It was nonmalicious, searching for idle systems to use to run a computationally intensive task.

Network worm programs use network connections to spread from system to system. Once active within a system, a network worm can behave as a computer virus or bacteria, or it could implant Trojan horse programs or perform any number of disruptive or destructive actions.

To  replicate itself, a  network worm uses some sort of  network    vehicle.

Examples include the following:


                           Electronic mail facility: A worm mails a copy of itself to other systems, so that its code is run when the e-mail or an attachment is received or   viewed.

                           Remote execution capability: A worm executes a copy of itself on another system, either using an explicit remote execution facility or by exploiting a program flaw in a network service to subvert its operations.

                           Remote login capability: A worm logs onto a remote system as a user and then uses commands to copy itself from one system to the other, where it then executes.


The new copy of the worm program is then run on the remote system where, in addition to any functions that it performs at that system, it continues to spread in the same fashion.

A network worm exhibits the same characteristics as a computer virus: a dormant phase, a propagation phase, a triggering phase, and an execution phase. The propagation phase generally performs the following functions:

1.                                       Search for other systems to infect by examining host tables or similar reposi- tories of remote system addresses.

2.                                       Establish a connection with a remote system.

3.                                       Copy itself to the remote system and cause the copy to be run.

The network worm may also attempt to determine whether a system has previously been infected before copying itself to the system. In a multiprogramming system, it may also disguise its presence by naming itself as a system process or using some other name that may not be noticed by a system operator.

As with viruses, network worms are difficult to counter.


The  Morris Worm

Until the current generation of worms, the best known was the worm released onto the Internet by Robert Morris in 1988 [ORMA03]. The Morris worm was designed to spread on UNIX systems and used a number of different techniques for propagation.

When a copy began execution, its first task was to discover other hosts known to this host that would allow entry from this host. The worm performed this task by examin- ing a variety of lists and tables, including system tables that declared which other machines were trusted by this host, users’ mail forwarding files, tables by which users gave themselves permission for access to remote accounts, and from a program that reported the status of network connections. For each discovered host, the worm tried a number of methods for gaining access:

1.                        It attempted to log on to a remote host as a legitimate user. In this method, the worm first attempted to crack the local password file and then used the discovered passwords and corresponding user IDs. The assumption was that many users would use the same password on different systems. To obtain the passwords, the worm ran a password-cracking program that tried

a.                                       Each user’s account name and simple permutations of it

b.                                       A list of 432 built-in passwords that Morris thought to be likely candidates2

c.                                        All the words in the local system dictionary

2.                        It exploited a bug in the UNIX finger protocol, which reports the whereabouts of a remote user.

3.                        It exploited a trapdoor in the debug option of the remote process that receives and sends mail.

If any of these attacks succeeded, the worm achieved communication with the operating system command interpreter. It then sent this interpreter a short boot- strap program, issued a command to execute that program, and then logged off. The bootstrap program then called back the parent program and downloaded the remainder of the worm. The new worm was then executed.


Worm  Propagation Model

[ZOU05] describes a model for worm propagation based on an analysis of recent worm attacks. The speed of propagation and the total number of hosts infected depend on a number of factors, including the mode of propagation, the vulnerability or vulnerabilities exploited, and the degree of similarity to preceding attacks. For the latter factor, an attack that is a variation of a recent previous attack may be countered more effectively than a more novel attack. Figure 21.6 shows the dynam- ics for one typical set of parameters. Propagation proceeds through three phases. In the initial phase, the number of hosts increases exponentially. To see that this is so, consider a simplified case in which a worm is launched from a single host and infects two nearby hosts. Each of these hosts infects two more hosts, and so on. This results in exponential growth. After a time, infecting hosts waste some time attacking already infected hosts, which reduces the rate of infection. During this middle phase, growth is approximately linear, but the rate of infection is rapid. When most vulner- able computers have been infected, the attack enters a slow finish phase as the worm seeks out those remaining hosts that are difficult to identify.

Clearly, the objective in countering a worm is to catch the worm in its slow start phase, at a time when few hosts have been infected.


Recent Worm Attacks

The contemporary era of worm threats began with the release of the Code Red worm in July of 2001. Code Red exploits a security hole in the Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) to penetrate and spread. It also disables the system file checker in Windows. The worm probes random IP addresses to spread to other hosts. During a certain period of time, it only spreads. It then initiates a denial-of-service attack against a government Web site by flooding the site with packets from numer- ous hosts. The worm then suspends activities and reactivates periodically. In the second wave of attack, Code Red infected nearly 360,000 servers in 14 hours. In addi- tion to the havoc it caused at the targeted server, Code Red consumed enormous amounts of Internet capacity, disrupting service.

Code Red II is a variant that targets Microsoft IISs. In addition, this newer worm installs a backdoor, allowing a hacker to remotely execute commands on victim computers.

In early 2003, the SQL Slammer worm appeared. This worm exploited a buffer overflow vulnerability in Microsoft SQL server. The Slammer was extremely com- pact and spread rapidly, infecting 90% of vulnerable hosts within 10 minutes. Late 2003 saw the arrival of the Sobig.f worm, which exploited open proxy servers to turn infected machines into spam engines. At its peak, Sobig.f reportedly accounted for one in every 17 messages and produced more than one million copies of itself within the first 24 hours.

Mydoom is a mass-mailing e-mail worm that appeared in 2004. It followed a growing trend of installing a backdoor in infected computers, thereby enabling hackers to gain remote access to data such as passwords and credit card numbers. Mydoom replicated up to 1000 times per minute and reportedly flooded the Internet with 100 million infected messages in 36 hours.

A recent worm that rapidly became prevalent in a variety of versions is the Warezov family of worms [KIRK06]. When the worm is launched, it creates several executable in system directories and sets itself to run every time Windows starts, by creating a registry entry. Warezov scans several types of files for e-mail addresses and sends itself as an e-mail attachment. Some variants are capable of downloading other malware, such as Trojan horses and adware. Many variants disable security related products and/or disable their updating capability.


State of Worm Technology

The state of the art in worm technology includes the   following:

                 Multiplatform: Newer worms are not limited to Windows machines but can attack a variety of platforms, especially the popular varieties of UNIX.

                 Multi-exploit: New worms penetrate systems in a variety of ways, using exploits against Web servers, browsers, e-mail, file sharing, and other network- based applications.

                 Ultrafast spreading: One technique to accelerate the spread of a worm is to conduct a prior Internet scan to accumulate Internet addresses of vulnerable machines.

                 Polymorphic: To evade detection, skip past filters, and foil real-time analysis, worms adopt the virus polymorphic technique. Each copy of the worm has new code generated on the fly using functionally equivalent instructions and encryption techniques.

                 Metamorphic: In addition to changing their appearance, metamorphic worms have a repertoire of behavior patterns that are unleashed at different stages of propagation.

                 Transport vehicles: Because worms can rapidly compromise a large number of systems, they are ideal for spreading other distributed attack tools, such as distributed denial of service bots.

                 Zero-day exploit: To achieve maximum surprise and distribution, a worm should exploit an unknown vulnerability that is only discovered by the general network community when the worm is launched.


Mobile Phone Worms

Worms first appeared on mobile phones in 2004. These worms communicate through Bluetooth wireless connections or via the multimedia messaging service (MMS). The target is the smartphone, which is a mobile phone that permits users to install software applications from sources other than the cellular network operator. Mobile phone malware can completely disable the phone, delete data on the phone, or force the device to send costly messages to premium-priced numbers.

An example of a mobile phone worm is CommWarrior, which was launched in 2005. This worm replicates by means of Bluetooth to other phones in the receiving area. It also sends itself as an MMS file to numbers in the phone’s address book and in automatic replies to incoming text messages and MMS messages. In addition, it copies itself to the removable memory card and inserts itself into the program installation files on the phone.


Worm Countermeasures

There is considerable overlap in techniques for dealing with viruses and worms. Once a worm is resident on a machine, antivirus software can be used to detect it. In addition, because worm propagation generates considerable network activity, net- work activity and usage monitoring can form the basis of a worm defense.

To begin, let us consider the requirements for an effective worm countermea- sure scheme:

                          Generality: The approach taken should be able to handle a wide variety of worm attacks, including polymorphic worms.

                          Timeliness: The approach should respond quickly so as to limit the number of infected systems and the number of generated transmissions from infected systems.

                          Resiliency: The approach should be resistant to evasion techniques employed by attackers to evade worm countermeasures.

                          Minimal denial-of-service costs: The approach should result in minimal reduc- tion in capacity or service due to the actions of the countermeasure software. That is, in an attempt to contain worm propagation, the countermeasure should not significantly disrupt normal operation.

                          Transparency: The countermeasure software and devices should not require modification to existing (legacy) OSs, application software, and hardware.

                          Global and local coverage: The approach should be able to deal with attack sources both from outside and inside the enterprise network.

No existing worm countermeasure scheme appears to satisfy all these require- ments. Thus, administrators typically need to use multiple approaches in defending against worm attacks.

COUNTERMEASURE APPROACHES Following [JHI07], we list six classes of worm defense:

A.                                      Signature-based worm scan filtering: This type of approach generates a worm signature, which is then used to prevent worm scans from entering/leaving a network/host. Typically, this approach involves identifying suspicious flows and generating a worm signature. This approach is vulnerable to the use of polymorphic worms: Either the detection software misses the worm or, if it is sufficiently sophisticated to deal with polymorphic worms, the scheme may take a long time to react. [NEWS05] is an example of this approach.

Filter-based worm containment: This approach is similar to class A but focuses on worm content rather than a scan signature. The filter checks a message to determine if it contains worm code. An example is Vigilante [COST05], which relies on collaborative worm detection at end hosts. This approach can be quite effective but requires efficient detection algorithms and rapid alert dissemination.

B.                       Payload-classification-based worm containment: These network-based tech- niques examine packets to see if they contain a worm. Various anomaly detection techniques can be used, but care is needed to avoid high levels of false positives or negatives. An example of this approach is reported in [CHIN05], which looks for exploit code in network flows. This approach does not generate signatures based on byte patterns but rather looks for control and data flow structures that suggest an exploit.

C.                       Threshold random walk (TRW) scan detection: TRW exploits randomness in picking destinations to connect to as a way of detecting if a scanner is in operation [JUNG04]. TRW is suitable for deployment in high-speed, low-cost network devices. It is effective against the common behavior seen in worm scans.

D.                       Rate limiting: This class limits the rate of scanlike traffic from an infected host. Various strategies can be used, including limiting the number of new machines a host can connect to in a window of time, detecting a high connection failure rate, and limiting the number of unique IP addresses a host can scan in a window of time. [CHEN04] is an example. This class of countermeasures may introduce longer delays for normal traffic. This class is also not suited for slow, stealthy worms that spread slowly to avoid detection based on activity level.

E.                       Rate halting: This approach immediately blocks outgoing traffic when a threshold is exceeded either in outgoing connection rate or diversity of con- nection attempts [JHI07]. The approach must include measures to quickly unblock mistakenly blocked hosts in a transparent way. Rate halting can inte- grate with a signature- or filter-based approach so that once a signature or fil- ter is generated, every blocked host can be unblocked. Rate halting appears to offer a very effective countermeasure. As with rate limiting, rate halting tech- niques are not suitable for slow, stealthy worms.

We look now at two approaches in more detail.

PROACTIVE WORM CONTAINMENT The PWC scheme [JHI07] is host based rather than being based on network devices such as honeypots, firewalls, and network IDSs. PWC is designed to address the threat of worms that spread rapidly. The software on a host looks for surges in the rate of frequency of outgoing connection attempts and the diversity of connections to remote hosts. When such a surge is detected, the software immediately blocks its host from further connection attempts. The developers estimate that only a few dozen infected packets may be sent out to other systems before PWC quarantines that attack. In contrast, the Slammer worm on average sent out 4000 infected packets per second.

A deployed PWC system consists of a PWC manager and PWC agents in hosts. Figure 21.7 is an example of an architecture that includes PWC. In this exam- ple, the security manager, signature extractor, and PWC manager are implemented in a single network device. In practice, these three modules could be implemented as two or three separate devices.

The operation of the PWC architecture can be described as follows:


A.                                      A PWC agent monitors outgoing traffic for scan activity, determined by a surge in UDP or TCP connection attempts to remote hosts. If a surge is detected, the agent performs the following actions: (1) issues an alert to local system; (2) blocks all outgoing connection attempts; (3) transmits the alert to the PWC manager; and (4) starts a relaxation analysis, described in D.

B.                                      A PWC manager receives an alert. The PWC propagates the alert to all other agents (beside the originating agent).

C.                                      The host receives an alert. The agent must decide whether to ignore the alert, in the following way. If the time since the last incoming packet has been sufficiently long so that the agent would have detected a worm if infected, then the alert is ignored. Otherwise, the agent assumes that it might be infected and performs the following actions: (1) blocks all outgoing connection attempts from the specific alerting port; and (2) starts a relaxation analysis, described in D.

D.                                      Relaxation analysis is performed as follows. An agent monitors outgoing activ- ity for a fixed window of time to see if outgoing connections exceed a thresh- old. If so, blockage is continued and relaxation analysis is performed for another window of time. This process continues until the outgoing connection rate drops below the threshold, at which time the agent removes the block. If the threshold continues to be exceeded over a sufficient number of relaxation windows, the agent isolates the host and reports to the PWC manager.

Meanwhile, a separate aspect of the worm defense system is in operation. The signature extractor functions as a passive sensor that monitors all traffic and attempts to detect worms by signature analysis. When a new worm is detected, its signature is sent by the security manager to the firewall to filter out any more copies of the worm. In addition, the PWC manager sends the signature to PWC agents, enabling them to immediately recognize infection and disable the worm.

NETWORK-BASED WORM DEFENSE The key element of a network-based worm defense is worm monitoring software. Consider an enterprise network at a site, consisting of one or an interconnected set of LANs. Two types of monitoring software are needed:

                 Ingress monitors: These are located at the border between the enterprise net- work and the Internet.They can be part of the ingress filtering software of a bor- der router or external firewall or a separate passive monitor. A honeypot can also capture incoming worm traffic. An example of a detection technique for an ingress monitor is to look for incoming traffic to unused local IP addresses.

                 Egress monitors: These can be located at the egress point of individual LANs on the enterprise network as well as at the border between the enterprise net- work and the Internet. In the former case, the egress monitor can be part of the egress filtering software of a LAN router or switch. As with ingress moni- tors, the external firewall or a honeypot can house the monitoring software. Indeed, the two types of monitors can be collocated. The egress monitor is designed to catch the source of a worm attack by monitoring outgoing traffic for signs of scanning or other suspicious behavior.

Worm monitors can act in the manner of intrusion detection systems and gen- erate alerts to a central administrative system. It is also possible to implement a sys- tem that attempts to react in real time to a worm attack, so as to counter zero-day exploits effectively. This is similar to the approach taken with the digital immune system (Figure 21.4).

Figure 21.8 shows an example of a worm countermeasure architecture [SIDI05]. The system works as follows (numbers in figure refer to numbers in the following list):

1.                        Sensors deployed at various network locations detect a potential worm. The sensor logic can also be incorporated in IDS sensors.

2.                        The sensors send alerts to a central server that correlates and analyzes the incom- ing alerts. The correlation server determines the likelihood that a worm attack is being observed and the key characteristics of the attack.

3.                        The server forwards its information to a protected environment, where the potential worm may be sandboxed for analysis and testing.

4.                        The protected system tests the suspicious software against an appropriately instrumented version of the targeted application to identify the vulnerability.

5.                        The protected system generates one or more software patches and tests these.

6.                        If the patch is not susceptible to the infection and does not compromise the application’s functionality, the system sends the patch to the application host to update the targeted application.

The success of such an automated patching system depends on maintaining a current list of potential attacks and developing general tools for patching software to counter such attacks. Examples of approaches are as follows:

                            Increasing the size of buffers

                            Using minor code-randomization techniques [BHAT03] so that the infection no longer works because the code to be attacked is no longer in the same form and location

                            Adding filters to the application that enable it to recognize and ignore an attack

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