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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Prevention of Virus Infection

The only way to prevent the infection of a virus is not to receive executable code from an infected source.

Prevention of Virus Infection


The only way to prevent the infection of a virus is not to receive executable code from an infected source. This philosophy used to be easy to follow because it was easy to tell if a file was executable or not. For example, on PCs, a .exe extension was a clear sign that the file was executable. However, as we have noted, today's files are more complex, and a seemingly nonexecutable file may have some executable code buried deep within it. For example, a word processor may have commands within the document file; as we noted earlier, these commands, called macros, make it easy for the user to do complex or repetitive things. But they are really executable code embedded in the context of the document. Similarly, spreadsheets, presentation slides, other office- or business-related files, and even media files can contain code or scripts that can be executed in various waysand thereby harbor viruses. And, as we have seen, the applications that run or use these files may try to be helpful by automatically invoking the executable code, whether you want it run or not! Against the principles of good security, e-mail handlers can be set to automatically open (without performing access control) attachments or embedded code for the recipient, so your e-mail message can have animated bears dancing across the top.


Another approach virus writers have used is a little-known feature in the Microsoft file design. Although a file with a .doc extension is expected to be a Word document, in fact, the true document type is hidden in a field at the start of the file. This convenience ostensibly helps a user who inadvertently names a Word document with a .ppt (Power-Point) or any other extension. In some cases, the operating system will try to open the associated application but, if that fails, the system will switch to the application of the hidden file type. So, the virus writer creates an executable file, names it with an inappropriate extension, and sends it to the victim, describing it is as a picture or a necessary code add-in or something else desirable. The unwitting recipient opens the file and, without intending to, executes the malicious code.


More recently, executable code has been hidden in files containing large data sets, such as pictures or read-only documents. These bits of viral code are not easily detected by virus scanners and certainly not by the human eye. For example, a file containing a photograph may be highly granular; if every sixteenth bit is part of a command string that can be executed, then the virus is very difficult to detect.


Because you cannot always know which sources are infected, you should assume that any outside source is infected. Fortunately, you know when you are receiving code from an outside source; unfortunately, it is not feasible to cut off all contact with the outside world.

In their interesting paper comparing computer virus transmission with human disease transmission, Kephart et al. [KEP93] observe that individuals' efforts to keep their computers free from viruses lead to communities that are generally free from viruses because members of the community have little (electronic) contact with the outside world. In this case, transmission is contained not because of limited contact but because of limited contact outside the community. Governments, for military or diplomatic secrets, often run disconnected network communities. The trick seems to be in choosing one's community prudently. However, as use of the Internet and the World Wide Web increases, such separation is almost impossible to maintain.


Nevertheless, there are several techniques for building a reasonably safe community for electronic contact, including the following:


  Use only commercial software acquired from reliable, well-established vendors. There is always a chance that you might receive a virus from a large manufacturer with a name everyone would recognize. However, such enterprises have significant reputations that could be seriously damaged by even one bad incident, so they go to some degree of trouble to keep their products virus-free and to patch any problem-causing code right away. Similarly, software distribution companies will be careful about products they handle.


  Test all new software on an isolated computer. If you must use software from a questionable source, test the software first on a computer that is not connected to a network and contains no sensitive or important data. Run the software and look for unexpected behavior, even simple behavior such as unexplained figures on the screen. Test the computer with a copy of an up-to-date virus scanner created before the suspect program is run. Only if the program passes these tests should you install it on a less isolated machine.


  Open attachments only when you know them to be safe. What constitutes "safe" is up to you, as you have probably already learned in this chapter. Certainly, an attachment from an unknown source is of questionable safety. You might also distrust an attachment from a known source but with a peculiar message.


  Make a recoverable system image and store it safely. If your system does become infected, this clean version will let you reboot securely because it overwrites the corrupted system files with clean copies. For this reason, you must keep the image write-protected during reboot. Prepare this image now, before infection; after infection it is too late. For safety, prepare an extra copy of the safe boot image.


  Make and retain backup copies of executable system files. This way, in the event of a virus infection, you can remove infected files and reinstall from the clean backup copies (stored in a secure, offline location, of course). Also make and retain backups of important data files that might contain infectable code; such files include word-processor documents, spreadsheets, slide presentations, pictures, sound files, and databases. Keep these backups on inexpensive media, such as CDs or DVDs so that you can keep old backups for a long time. In case you find an infection, you want to be able to start from a clean backupthat is, one taken before the infection.


  Use virus detectors (often called virus scanners) regularly and update them daily. Many of the available virus detectors can both detect and eliminate infection from viruses. Several scanners are better than one because one may detect the viruses that others miss. Because scanners search for virus signatures, they are constantly being revised as new viruses are discovered. New virus signature files or new versions of scanners are distributed frequently; often, you can request automatic downloads from the vendor's web site. Keep your detector's signature file up to date.


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