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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Why Worry About Malicious Code?

None of us like the unexpected, especially in our programs. Malicious code behaves in unexpected ways, thanks to a malicious programmer's intention.

Why Worry About Malicious Code?


None of us like the unexpected, especially in our programs. Malicious code behaves in unexpected ways, thanks to a malicious programmer's intention. We think of the malicious code as lurking inside our system: all or some of a program that we are running or even a nasty part of a separate program that somehow attaches itself to another (good) program.


How can such a situation arise? When you last installed a major software package, such as a word processor, a statistical package, or a plug-in from the Internet, you ran one command, typically called INSTALL or SETUP. From there, the installation program took control, creating some files, writing in other files, deleting data and files, and perhaps renaming a few that it would change. A few minutes and a quite a few disk accesses later, you had plenty of new code and data, all set up for you with a minimum of human intervention. Other than the general descriptions on the box, in documentation files, or on web pages, you had absolutely no idea exactly what "gifts" you had received. You hoped all you received was good, and it probably was. The same uncertainty exists when you unknowingly download an application, such as a Java applet or an ActiveX control, while viewing a web site. Thousands or even millions of bytes of programs and data are transferred, and hundreds of modifications may be made to your existing files, all occurring without your explicit consent or knowledge.


Malicious Code Can Do Much (Harm)


Malicious code can do anything any other program can, such as writing a message on a computer screen, stopping a running program, generating a sound, or erasing a stored file. Or malicious code can do nothing at all right now; it can be planted to lie dormant, undetected, until some event triggers the code to act. The trigger can be a time or date, an interval (for example, after 30 minutes), an event (for example, when a particular program is executed), a condition (for example, when communication occurs on a network interface), a count (for example, the fifth time something happens), some combination of these, or a random situation. In fact, malicious code can do different things each time, or nothing most of the time with something dramatic on occasion. In general, malicious code can act with all the predictability of a two-year-old child: We know in general what two-year-olds do, we may even know what a specific two-year-old often does in certain situations, but two-year-olds have an amazing capacity to do the unexpected.


Malicious code runs under the user's authority. Thus, malicious code can touch everything the user can touch, and in the same ways. Users typically have complete control over their own program code and data files; they can read, write, modify, append, and even delete them. And well they should. But malicious code can do the same, without the user's permission or even knowledge.


Malicious Code Has Been Around a Long Time


The popular literature and press continue to highlight the effects of malicious code as if it were a relatively recent phenomenon. It is not. Cohen [COH84] is sometimes credited with the discovery of viruses, but in fact Cohen gave a name to a phenomenon known long before. For example, Thompson, in his 1984 Turing Award lecture, "Reflections on Trusting Trust" [THO84], described code that can be passed by a compiler. In that lecture, he refers to an earlier Air Force document, the Multics security evaluation by Karger and Schell [KAR74 , KAR02]. In fact, references to virus behavior go back at least to 1970. Ware's 1970 study (publicly released in 1979 [WAR79]) and Anderson's planning study for the U.S. Air Force [AND72] still accurately describe threats, vulnerabilities, and program security flaws, especially intentional ones. What is new about malicious code is the number of distinct instances and copies that have appeared and the speed with which exploit code appears. (See Sidebar 3-4 on attack timing.)


So malicious code is still around, and its effects are more pervasive. It is important for us to learn what it looks like and how it works so that we can take steps to prevent it from doing damage or at least mediate its effects. How can malicious code take control of a system? How can it lodge in a system? How does malicious code spread? How can it be recognized? How can it be detected? How can it be stopped? How can it be prevented? We address these questions in the following sections.

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