Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The New Virus Threat

Now that the OS is getting patched up, virus writers have a new target:- Device Drivers and Application Software (including Middleware products) The shift was bound to happen. Did not think that our vicious brothers would give up the fun part of OS screwing so easily.

Let’s try to understand what these nut cases do. But before that, we need to understand viruses. So here we go down nostalgia lane.

A virus is a small piece of software that has just two purposes

  1. Survival
  2. Replication / Proliferation

These are the generic reasons. In this way, computer viruses are very similar to their biological counterparts. Both get a free ride at others expense. (A hitchhiker, a dangerous and unwelcome one) A biological virus steals the food (protein) that the host cell makes and uses it to strengthen itself, multiply, and rupture the host, after having used him up. I call him a thankless scum.

Now you may ask me what about the damage that it does? Well, of course, from a novelistic point of view, the virus has to do something (it’s called payload), and this is where the plot begins to unfold. You see, if the virus was just to do point 1. and 2. given above, I would never come to know that a virus is lurking in the innards of my immaculate machine. But like a thief who leaves a trail behind, so does a virus. There are some smart viruses which erase these bread crumbs, still their effect shows up somewhere. For e.g: say your machine has slowed down, your keyboards acting witty etc. But always remember Rule No.1 : Don’t judge a virus by its’ effect.

Sometimes people ask me a silly question like ‘Can the virus be sitting inside the image that I downloaded from the net yesterday?’ My answer is both Yes and No. Yes, because the image file might have arrived as a executable file, and if you have hidden the extension that appears when you list the file (Windows only) then God Help. It’s a good practice to run an updated anti-virus on these pests before you try to open them up. Now think about this, can there be a virus in a notepad file or any text file? Of course not! Can there be a virus inside a word file? Sure, if you have turned on the macros. (macros are simple programming language equivalents existing for power users). Now we come to Rule No. 2 : A data file cannot have a virus.

So far so good. There is a whole bunch of different kinds of viruses called worms, Trojan horses, and other funny sounding ones that are vying to get our attention, I mean illegally. We will not worry about these, for the time being. There are variants like adware and spyware, not as harmful as the mainstream, but still pester us. The best way to prevent them is to be cautious about what goes inside and outside the machine. Install an anti-virus and the Spyware / Adware Cleaner and regularly (say once or twice a week) run a scan. People talk of stealth viruses, PDA and mobile phone viruses etc. Yes the threat exists but sooner or later they will be vanquished. You know why? Good always wins over the Bad, finally. If you think, I’m giving you a one-liner from a movie, tell me a good reason why the electron is so far away from the nucleus of an atom, whereas a proton (positive charge) is inside the nucleus so close to the neutron (the meditating monk). The tools that we use for detecting viruses may not detect some of these new breeds of viruses, but the antidote is to fireproof your machine with the best antivirus that is out there and keep it updated daily. (Why doesn’t a company, insure us for virus attacks). So here’s Rule No. 3 : Never think that you are 100% safe even if you run the latest antivirus.

But remember there is hope. Recently, I read about a honey-pot concept where we catch the viruses by deliberately making a target machine vulnerable. The virus thinks that it’s a hit, but actually it’s a bait. Let’s see if the cops can run faster than the thieves. Only time will tell …

Now about the people who write viruses. They need to measure up. See the damages that they afflict on people like us. For what? Some cruel streak or a negative belief or some other reason that we need to really understand before it’s too late. I prescribe the following for these deranged people:

  1. A trip to a shrink
  2. Spiritual cleansing.
  3. Community Service.

We could jail them, like we did some of them. But let’s forgive and forget and usher them into a future where these very people would be the cops or designers of Anti-Virus (and other anti-malware software) and would outrun the other ‘sick’ fellows lurking out there, preparing the next paralyzing strike against the human race.