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history and evolution of computer viruses...part 1-5

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history and evolution of computer viruses...part 1-5

Post by jkakashi01 on Wed Feb 13, 2008 2:11 pm

part 1


Basketball Like any other field in computer science, viruses have evolved -a great deal indeed- over the years. In the series of press releases which start today, we will look at the origins and evolution of malicious code since it first appeared up to the present.

study Going back to the origin of viruses, it was in 1949 that Mathematician John Von Neumann described self-replicating programs which could resemble computer viruses as they are known today. However, it was not until the 60s that we find the predecessor of current viruses. In that decade, a group of programmers developed a game called Core Wars, which could reproduce every time it was run, and even saturate the memory of other players' computers. The creators of this peculiar game also created the first antivirus, an application named Reeper, which could destroy copies created by Core Wars.

However, it was only in 1983 that one of these programmers announced the existence of Core Wars, which was described the following year in a prestigious scientific magazine: this was actually the starting point of what we call computer viruses today.

At that time, a still young MS-DOS was starting to become the preeminent operating system worldwide. This was a system with great prospects, but still many deficiencies as well, which arose from software developments and the lack of many hardware elements known today. Even like this, this new operating system became the target of a virus in 1986: Brain, a malicious code created in Pakistan which infected boot sectors of disks so that their contents could not be accessed. That year also saw the birth of the first Trojan: an application called PC-Write.

Shortly after, virus writers realized that infecting files could be even more harmful to systems. In 1987, a virus called Suriv-02 appeared, which infected COM files and opened the door to the infamous viruses Jerusalem or Viernes 13. However, the worst was still to come: 1988 set the date when the ?Morris worm? appeared, infecting 6,000 computers.

From that date up to 1995 the types of malicious codes that are known today started being developed: the first macro viruses appeared, polymorphic viruses. Some of these even triggered epidemics, such as MichaelAngelo. However, there was an event that changed the virus scenario worldwide: the massive use of the Internet and e-mail. Little by little, viruses started adapting to this new situation until the appearance, in 1999, of Melissa, the first malicious code to cause a worldwide epidemic, opening a new era for computer viruses.



part 2


This second installment of "The evolution of viruses" will look at how malicious code used to spread before use of the Internet and e-mail became as commonplace as it is today, and the main objectives of the creators of those earlier viruses.
Until the worldwide web and e-mail were adopted as a standard means of communication the world over, the main mediums through which viruses spread were floppy disks, removable drives, CDs, etc., containing files that were already infected or with the virus code in an executable boot sector.

throw pc When a virus entered a system it could go memory resident, infecting other files as they were opened, or it could start to reproduce immediately, also infecting other files on the system. The virus code could also be triggered by a certain event, for example when the system clock reached a certain date or time. In this case, the virus creator would calculate the time necessary for the virus to spread and then set a date often with some particular significance- for the virus to activate. In this way, the virus would have an incubation period during which it didn?t visibly affect computers, but just spread from one system to another waiting for ?D-day? to launch its payload. This incubation period would be vital to the virus successfully infecting as many computers as possible.

One classic example of a destructive virus that lay low before releasing its payload was CIH, also known as Chernobyl. The most damaging version of this malicious code activated on April 26, when it would try to overwrite the flash-BIOS, the memory which includes the code needed to control PC devices. This virus, which first appeared in June 1998, had a serious impact for over two years and still continues to infect computers today.

Because of the way in which they propagate, these viruses spread very slowly, especially in comparison to the speed of today's malicious code. Towards the end of the Eighties, for example, the Friday 13th (or Jerusalem) virus needed a long time to actually spread and continued to infect computers for some years. In contrast, experts reckon that in January 2003, SQLSlammer took just ten minutes to cause global communication problems across the Internet.

Notoriety versus stealth

For the most part, in the past, the activation of a malicious code triggered a series of on screen messages or images, or caused sounds to be emitted to catch the user?s attention. Such was the case with the Ping Pong virus, which displayed a ball bouncing from one side of the screen to another. This kind of elaborate display was used by the creator of the virus to gain as much notoriety as possible. Nowadays however, the opposite is the norm, with virus authors trying to make malicious code as discreet as possible, infecting users? systems without them noticing that anything is amiss.



pat 3


This third installment of "The evolution of viruses" will look at how the Internet and e-mail changed the propagation techniques used by computer viruses.

Internet and e-mail revolutionized communications. However, as expected, virus creators didn?t take long to realize that along with this new means of communication, an excellent way of spreading their creations far and wide had also dawned. Therefore, they quickly changed their aim from infecting a few computers while drawing as much attention to themselves as possible, to damaging as many computers as possible, as quickly as possible. This change in strategy resulted in the first global virus epidemic, which was caused by the Melissa worm.

With the appearance of Melissa, the economic impact of a virus started to become an issue. As a result, users -above all companies- started to become seriously concerned about the consequences of viruses on the security of their computers. This is how users discovered antivirus programs, which started to be installed widely. However, this also brought about a new challenge for virus writers, how to slip past this protection and how to persuade users to run infected files.

The answer to which of these virus strategies was the most effective came in the form of a new worm: Love Letter, which used a simple but effective ruse that could be considered an early type of social engineering. This strategy involves inserting false messages that trick users into thinking that the message includes anything, except a virus. This worm's bait was simple; it led users to believe that they had received a love letter.

This technique is still the most widely used. However, it is closely followed by another tactic that has been the center of attention lately: exploiting vulnerabilities in commonly used software. This strategy offers a range of possibilities depending on the security hole exploited. The first malicious code to use this method and quite successfully- were the BubbleBoy and Kakworm worms. These worms exploited a vulnerability in Internet Explorer by inserting HTML code in the body of the e-mail message, which allowed them to run automatically, without needing the user to do a thing.

Vulnerabilities allow many different types of actions to be carried out. For example, they allow viruses to be dropped on computers directly from the Internet -such as the Blaster worm-. In fact, the effects of the virus depend on the vulnerability that the virus author tries to exploit.



part 4


In the early days of computers, there were relatively few PCs likely to contain sensitive information, such as credit card numbers or other financial data, and these were generally limited to large companies that had already incorporated computers into working processes.

In any event, information stored in computers was not likely to be compromised, unless the computer was connected to a network through which the information could be transmitted. Of course, there were exceptions to this and there were cases in which hackers perpetrated frauds using data stored in IT systems. However, this was achieved through typical hacking activities, with no viruses involved.

The advent of the Internet however caused virus creators to change their objectives, and, from that moment on, they tried to infect as many computers as possible in the shortest time. Also, the introduction of Internet services -like e-banking or online shopping- brought in another change. Some virus creators started writing malicious codes not to infect computers, but, to steal confidential data associated to those services. Evidently, to achieve this, they needed viruses that could infect many computers silently.

throw pc Their malicious labor was finally rewarded with the appearance, in 1986, of a new breed of malicious code generically called "Trojan Horse", or simply "Trojan". This first Trojan was called PC-Write and tried to pass itself off as the shareware version of a text processor. When run, the Trojan displayed a functional text processor on screen. The problem was that, while the user wrote, PC-Write deleted and corrupted files on the computers? hard disk.

After PC-Write, this type of malicious code evolved very quickly to reach the stage of present-day Trojans. Today, many of the people who design Trojans to steal data cannot be considered virus writers but simply thieves who, instead of using blowtorches or dynamite have turned to viruses to commit their crimes. Ldpinch.W or the Bancos or Tolger families of Trojans are examples of this


part 5


Even though none of them can be left aside, some particular fields of computer science have played a more determinant role than others with regard to the evolution of viruses. One of the most influential fields has been the development of programming languages.

These languages are basically a means of communication with computers in order to tell them what to do. Even though each of them has its own specific development and formulation rules, computers in fact understand only one language called "machine code".

Programming languages act as an interpreter between the programmer and the computer. Obviously, the more directly you can communicate with the computer, the better it will understand you, and more complex actions you can ask it to perform.

According to this, programming languages can be divided into "low and high level" languages, depending on whether their syntax is more understandable for programmers or for computers. A "high level" language uses expressions that are easily understandable for most programmers, but not so much for computers. Visual Basic and C are good examples of this type of language.

On the contrary, expressions used by "low level" languages are closer to machine code, but are very difficult to understand for someone who has not been involved in the programming process. One of the most powerful, most widely used examples of this type of language is "assembler".

In order to explain the use of programming languages through virus history, it is necessary to refer to hardware evolution. It is not difficult to understand that an old 8-bit processor does not have the power of modern 64-bit processors, and this of course, has had an impact on the programming languages used.

In this and the next installments of this series, we will look at the different programming languages used by virus creators through computer history:

- Virus antecessors: Core Wars

As was already explained in the first chapter of this series, a group of programs called Core Wars, developed by engineers at an important telecommunications company, are considered the antecessors of current-day viruses. Computer science was still in the early stages and programming languages had hardly developed. For this reason, authors of these proto-viruses used a language that was almost equal to machine code to program them.

Curiously enough, it seems that one of the Core Wars programmers was Robert Thomas Morris, whose son programmed -years later- the "Morris worm". This malicious code became extraordinarily famous since it managed to infect 6,000 computers, an impressive figure for 1988.

- The new gurus of the 8-bits and the assembler language.

The names Altair, IMSAI and Apple in USA and Sinclair, Atari and Commodore in Europe, bring memories of times gone by, when a new generation of computer enthusiasts "fought" to establish their place in the programming world. To be the best, programmers needed to have profound knowledge of machine code and assembler, as interpreters of high-level languages used too much run time. BASIC, for example, was a relatively easy to learn language which allowed users to develop programs simply and quickly. It had however, many limitations.

This caused the appearance of two groups of programmers: those who used assembler and those who turned to high-level languages (BASIC and PASCAL, mainly).

Computer aficionados of the time enjoyed themselves more by programming useful software than malware. However, 1981 saw the birth of what can be considered the first 8-bit virus. Its name was "Elk Cloner", and was programmed in machine code. This virus could infect Apple II systems and displayed a message when it infected a computer.
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