A computer virus is a computer program that can replicate itself and spread from one computer to another. The term “virus” is also commonly but erroneously used to refer to other types of malware, including but not limited to adware and spyware programs that do not have the reproductive ability. A true virus can spread from one computer to another (in some form of executable code) when its host is taken to the target computer; for instance because a user sent it over a network or the Internet, or carried it on a removable medium such as a floppy disk, CD, DVD, or USB drive.
As stated above, the term “computer virus” is sometimes used as a catch-all phrase to include all types of malware, even those that do not have the reproductive ability. Malware includes computer viruses, computer worms, Trojan horses, most rootkits, spyware, dishonest adware and other malicious and unwanted software, including true viruses. Viruses are sometimes confused with worms and Trojan horses, which are technically different. A worm can exploit security vulnerabilities to spread itself automatically to other computers through networks, while a Trojan horse is a program that appears harmless but hides malicious functions. Worms and Trojan horses, like viruses, may harm a computer system’s data or performance. Some viruses and other malware have symptoms noticeable to the computer user, but many are surreptitious or simply do nothing to call attention to themselves. Some viruses do nothing beyond reproducing themselves.
In order to replicate itself, a virus must be permitted to execute code and write to memory. For this reason, many viruses attach themselves to executable files that may be part of legitimate programs. If a user attempts to launch an infected program, the virus’ code may be executed simultaneously. Viruses can be divided into two types based on their behavior when they are executed. Nonresident viruses immediately search for other hosts that can be infected, infect those targets, and finally transfer control to the application program they infected. Resident viruses do not search for hosts when they are started. Instead, a resident virus loads itself into memory on execution and transfers control to the host program. The virus stays active in the background and infects new hosts when those files are accessed by other programs or the operating system itself.
Vectors and hosts
Viruses have targeted various types of transmission media or hosts. This list is not exhaustive:
- Binary executable files (such as COM files and EXE files in MS-DOS, Portable Executable files in Microsoft Windows, the Mach-O format in OSX, and ELF files in Linux)
- Volume Boot Records of floppy disks and hard disk partitions
- The master boot record (MBR) of a hard disk
- General-purpose script files (such as batch files in MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows, VBScript files, and shell script files on Unix-like platforms).
- Application-specific script files (such as Telix-scripts)
- System specific autorun script files (such as Autorun.inf file needed by Windows to automatically run software stored on USB Memory Storage Devices).
- Documents that can contain macros (such as Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, AmiPro documents, and Microsoft Access database files)
- Cross-site scripting vulnerabilities in web applications (see XSS Worm)
- Arbitrary computer files. An exploitable buffer overflow, format string, race condition or other exploitable bug in a program which reads the file could be used to trigger the execution of code hidden within it. Most bugs of this type can be made more difficult to exploit in computer architectures with protection features such as an execute disable bit and/or address space layout randomization.
In operating systems that use file extensions to determine program associations (such as Microsoft Windows), the extensions may be hidden from the user by default. This makes it possible to create a file that is of a different type than it appears to the user. For example, an executable may be created named “picture.png.exe”, in which the user sees only “picture.png” and therefore assumes that this file is an image and most likely is safe, yet when opened runs the executable on the client machine.
An additional method is to generate the virus code from parts of existing operating system files by using the CRC16/CRC32 data. The initial code can be quite small (tens of bytes) and unpack a fairly large virus. This is analogous to a biological “prion” in the way it works but is vulnerable to signature based detection. This attack has not yet been seen “in the wild”.
Methods to avoid detection
In order to avoid detection by users, some viruses employ different kinds of deception. Some old viruses, especially on the MS-DOS platform, make sure that the “last modified” date of a host file stays the same when the file is infected by the virus. This approach does not fool anti-virus software, however, especially those which maintain and date Cyclic redundancy checks on file changes.
Some viruses can infect files without increasing their sizes or damaging the files. They accomplish this by overwriting unused areas of executable files. These are called cavity viruses. For example, the CIH virus, or Chernobyl Virus, infects Portable Executable files. Because those files have many empty gaps, the virus, which was 1 KB in length, did not add to the size of the file.
Some viruses try to avoid detection by killing the tasks associated with antivirus software before it can detect them.
As computers and operating systems grow larger and more complex, old hiding techniques need to be updated or replaced. Defending a computer against viruses may demand that a file system migrate towards detailed and explicit permission for every kind of file access.
Encryption with a variable key
A more advanced method is the use of simple encryption to encipher the virus. In this case, the virus consists of a small decrypting module and an encrypted copy of the virus code. If the virus is encrypted with a different key for each infected file, the only part of the virus that remains constant is the decrypting module, which would (for example) be appended to the end. In this case, a virus scanner cannot directly detect the virus using signatures, but it can still detect the decrypting module, which still makes indirect detection of the virus possible. Since these would be symmetric keys, stored on the infected host, it is in fact entirely possible to decrypt the final virus, but this is probably not required, since self-modifying code is such a rarity that it may be reason for virus scanners to at least flag the file as suspicious.
An old, but compact, encryption involves XORing each byte in a virus with a constant, so that the exclusive-or operation had only to be repeated for decryption. It is suspicious for a code to modify itself, so the code to do the encryption/decryption may be part of the signature in many virus definitions.
Anti-virus software and other preventive measures
Many users install anti-virus software that can detect and eliminate known viruses after the computer downloads or runs the executable. There are two common methods that an anti-virus software application uses to detect viruses. The first, and by far the most common method of virus detection is using a list of virus signature definitions. This works by examining the content of the computer’s memory (its RAM, and boot sectors) and the files stored on fixed or removable drives (hard drives, floppy drives), and comparing those files against a database of known virus “signatures”. The disadvantage of this detection method is that users are only protected from viruses that pre-date their last virus definition update. The second method is to use a heuristic algorithm to find viruses based on common behaviors. This method has the ability to detect novel viruses that anti-virus security firms have yet to create a signature for.
Some anti-virus programs are able to scan opened files in addition to sent and received email messages “on the fly” in a similar manner. This practice is known as “on-access scanning”. Anti-virus software does not change the underlying capability of host software to transmit viruses. Users must update their software regularly to patch security holes. Anti-virus software also needs to be regularly updated in order to recognize the latest threats.
One may also minimize the damage done by viruses by making regular backups of data (and the operating systems) on different media, that are either kept unconnected to the system (most of the time), read-only or not accessible for other reasons, such as using different file systems. This way, if data is lost through a virus, one can start again using the backup (which should preferably be recent).
If a backup session on optical media like CD and DVD is closed, it becomes read-only and can no longer be affected by a virus (so long as a virus or infected file was not copied onto the CD/DVD). Likewise, an operating system on a bootable CD can be used to start the computer if the installed operating systems become unusable. Backups on removable media must be carefully inspected before restoration. The Gammima virus, for example, propagates via removable flash drives.
One possibility on Windows Me, Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 is a tool known as System Restore, which restores the registry and critical system files to a previous checkpoint. Often a virus will cause a system to hang, and a subsequent hard reboot will render a system restore point from the same day corrupt. Restore points from previous days should work provided the virus is not designed to corrupt the restore files or also exists in previous restore points. Some viruses, however, disable System Restore and other important tools such as Task Manager and Command Prompt. An example of a virus that does this is CiaDoor. However, many such viruses can be removed by rebooting the computer, entering Windows safe mode, and then using system tools.
Administrators have the option to disable such tools from limited users for various reasons (for example, to reduce potential damage from and the spread of viruses). A virus can modify the registry to do the same even if the Administrator is controlling the computer; it blocks all users including the administrator from accessing the tools. The message “Task Manager has been disabled by your administrator” may be displayed, even to the administrator.
Users running a Microsoft operating system can access Microsoft’s website to run a free scan, provided they have their 20-digit registration number. Many websites run by anti-virus software companies provide free online virus scanning, with limited cleaning facilities (the purpose of the sites is to sell anti-virus products). Some websites allow a single suspicious file to be checked by many antivirus programs in one operation.