A computer worm is a self-replicating malware computer program, which uses a computer network to send copies of itself to other nodes (computers on the network) and it may do so without any user intervention. This is due to security shortcomings on the target computer. Unlike a computer virus, it does not need to attach itself to an existing program. Worms almost always cause at least some harm to the network, even if only by consuming bandwidth, whereas viruses almost always corrupt or modify files on a targeted computer.
Many worms that have been created are only designed to spread, and don’t attempt to alter the systems they pass through. However, as the Morris worm and Mydoom showed, even these “payload free” worms can cause major disruption by increasing network traffic and other unintended effects. A “payload” is code in the worm designed to do more than spread the worm–it might delete files on a host system (e.g., the ExploreZip worm), encrypt files in a cryptoviral extortion attack, or send documents via e-mail. A very common payload for worms is to install a backdoor in the infected computer to allow the creation of a “zombie” computer under control of the worm author. Networks of such machines are often referred to as botnets and are very commonly used by spam senders for sending junk email or to cloak their website’s address. Spammers are therefore thought to be a source of funding for the creation of such worms, and the worm writers have been caught selling lists of IP addresses of infected machines. Others try to blackmail companies with threatened DoS attacks.
Backdoors can be exploited by other malware, including worms. Examples include Doomjuice, which spreads better using the backdoor opened by Mydoom, and at least one instance of malware taking advantage of the rootkit and backdoor installed by the Sony/BMG DRM software utilized by millions of music CDs prior to late 2005.[dubious – discuss]
Protecting against dangerous computer worms
Worms spread by exploiting vulnerabilities in operating systems. Vendors with security problems supply regular security updates (see “Patch Tuesday“), and if these are installed to a machine then the majority of worms are unable to spread to it. If a vulnerability is disclosed before the security patch released by the vendor, a Zero-day attack is possible.
Users need to be wary of opening unexpected email, and should not run attached files or programs, or visit web sites that are linked to such emails. However, as with the ILOVEYOU worm, and with the increased growth and efficiency of phishing attacks, it remains possible to trick the end-user into running a malicious code.
Anti-virus and anti-spyware software are helpful, but must be kept up-to-date with new pattern files at least every few days. The use of a firewall is also recommended.
In the April–June, 2008, issue of IEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing, computer scientists describe a potential new way to combat internet worms. The researchers discovered how to contain the kind of worm that scans the Internet randomly, looking for vulnerable hosts to infect. They found that the key is for software to monitor the number of scans that machines on a network sends out. When a machine starts sending out too many scans, it is a sign that it has been infected, allowing administrators to take it off line and check it for viruses.