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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Example: The Internet Worm

On the evening of 2 November 1988, a worm was released to the Internet, causing serious damage to the network.

Example: The Internet Worm


On the evening of 2 November 1988, a worm was released to the Internet, causing serious damage to the network. Not only were many systems infected, but also when word of the problem spread, many more uninfected systems severed their network connections to prevent themselves from getting infected. Spafford and his team at Purdue University [SPA89] and Eichen and Rochlis at M.I.T. [EIC89] studied the worm extensively, and Orman [ORM03] did an interesting retrospective analysis 15 years after the incident.

The perpetrator was Robert T. Morris, Jr., a graduate student at Cornell University who created and released the worm. He was convicted in 1990 of violating the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, section 1030 of U.S. Code Title 18. He received a fine of $10,000, a three-year suspended jail sentence, and was required to perform 400 hours of community service. (See Denning [DEN90b] for a discussion of this punishment.)


What It Did


Judging from its code, Morris programmed the Internet worm to accomplish three main objectives:


           Determine where it could spread to.


           Spread its infection.


           Remain undiscovered and undiscoverable.


What Effect It Had


The worm's primary effect was resource exhaustion. Its source code indicated that the worm was supposed to check whether a target host was already infected; if so, the worm would negotiate so that either the existing infection or the new infector would terminate. However, because of a supposed flaw in the code, many new copies did not terminate. As a result, an infected machine soon became burdened with many copies of the worm, all busily attempting to spread the infection. Thus, the primary observable effect was serious degradation in performance of affected machines.


A second-order effect was the disconnection of many systems from the Internet. System administrators tried to sever their connection with the Internet, either because their machines were already infected and the system administrators wanted to keep the worm's processes from looking for sites to which to spread or because their machines were not yet infected and the staff wanted to avoid having them become so.


The disconnection led to a third-order effect: isolation and inability to perform necessary work. Disconnected systems could not communicate with other systems to carry on the normal research, collaboration, business, or information exchange users expected. System administrators on disconnected systems could not use the network to exchange information with their counterparts at other installations, so status and containment or recovery information was unavailable.


The worm caused an estimated 6,000 installations to shut down or disconnect from the Internet. In total, several thousand systems were disconnected for several days, and several hundred of these systems were closed to users for a day or more while they were disconnected. Estimates of the cost of the damage range from $100,000 to $97 million.


How It Worked


The worm exploited several known flaws and configuration failures of Berkeley version 4 of the Unix operating system. It accomplishedor had code that appeared to try to accomplishits three objectives.


Determine where to spread. The worm had three techniques for locating potential machines to victimize. It first tried to find user accounts to invade on the target machine. In parallel, the worm tried to exploit a bug in the finger program and then to use a trapdoor in the sendmail mail handler. All three of these security flaws were well known in the general Unix community.


The first security flaw was a joint user and system error, in which the worm tried guessing passwords and succeeded when it found one. The Unix password file is stored in encrypted form, but the ciphertext in the file is readable by anyone. (This visibility is the system error.) The worm encrypted various popular passwords and compared their ciphertext to the ciphertext of the stored password file. The worm tried the account name, the owner's name, and a short list of 432 common passwords (such as "guest," "password," "help," "coffee," "coke," "aaa"). If none of these succeeded, the worm used the dictionary file stored on the system for use by application spelling checkers. (Choosing a recognizable password is the user error.) When it got a match, the worm could log in to the corresponding account by presenting the plaintext password. Then, as a user, the worm could look for other machines to which the user could obtain access. (See the article by Robert T. Morris, Sr. and Ken Thompson [MOR79] on selection of good passwords, published a decade before the worm, and the section in Chapter 4 on passwords people choose.)


The second flaw concerned fingerd, the program that runs continuously to respond to other computers' requests for information about system users. The security flaw involved causing the input buffer to overflow, spilling into the return address stack. Thus, when the finger call terminated, fingerd executed instructions that had been pushed there as another part of the buffer overflow, causing the worm to be connected to a remote shell.


The third flaw involved a trapdoor in the sendmail program. Ordinarily, this program runs in the background, awaiting signals from others wanting to send mail to the system. When it receives such a signal, sendmail gets a destination address, which it verifies, and then begins a dialog to receive the message. However, when running in debugging mode, the worm causes sendmail to receive and execute a command string instead of the destination address.


Spread infection. Having found a suitable target machine, the worm would use one of these three methods to send a bootstrap loader to the target machine. This loader consisted of 99 lines of C code to be compiled and executed on the target machine. The bootstrap loader would then fetch the rest of the worm from the sending host machine. An element of good computer securityor stealthwas built into the exchange between the host and the target. When the target's bootstrap requested the rest of the worm, the worm supplied a one-time password back to the host. Without this password, the host would immediately break the connection to the target, presumably in an effort to ensure against "rogue" bootstraps (ones that a real administrator might develop to try to obtain a copy of the rest of the worm for subsequent analysis).


Remain undiscovered and undiscoverable. The worm went to considerable lengths to prevent its discovery once established on a host. For instance, if a transmission error occurred while the rest of the worm was being fetched, the loader zeroed and then deleted all code already transferred and then exited.


As soon as the worm received its full code, it brought the code into memory, encrypted it, and deleted the original copies from disk. Thus, no traces were left on disk, and even a memory dump would not readily expose the worm's code. The worm periodically changed its name and process identifier so that no single name would run up a large amount of computing time.


What Was Learned


The Internet worm sent a shock wave through the Internet community, which at that time was largely populated by academics and researchers. The affected sites closed some of the loopholes exploited by the worm and generally tightened security. Some users changed passwords. Two researchers, Farmer and Spafford [FAR90], developed a program for system administrators to check for some of the same flaws the worm exploited. However, security analysts checking for site vulnerabilities across the Internet find that many of the same security flaws still exist today. A new attack on the Internet would not succeed on the same scale as the Internet worm, but it could still cause significant inconvenience to many.


The Internet worm was benign in that it only spread to other systems but did not destroy any part of them. It collected sensitive data, such as account passwords, but it did not retain them. While acting as a user, the worm could have deleted or overwritten files, distributed them elsewhere, or encrypted them and held them for ransom. The next worm may not be so benign.


The worm's effects stirred several people to action. One positive outcome from this experience was development of an infrastructure for reporting and correcting malicious and nonmalicious code flaws. The Internet worm occurred at about the same time that Cliff Stoll [STO89] reported his problems in tracking an electronic intruder (and his subsequent difficulty in finding anyone to deal with the case). The computer community realized it needed to organize. The resulting Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) at Carnegie Mellon University was formed; it and similar response centers around the world have done an excellent job of collecting and disseminating information on malicious code attacks and their countermeasures. System administrators now exchange information on problems and solutions. Security comes from informed protection and action, not from ignorance and inaction.


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