Assume Malware Espionage Is Common

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-05-31 Print this article Print

Opinion: It's too easy for someone to spy on you through malware, so you need to protect yourself. Software can help, but management and education are the only real answers.

An Israeli industrial espionage scandal that erupted over the weekend really shouldnt be surprising, tempting as surprise might be. In fact, while its impossible to know how much of this sort of thing is going on, its safe and responsible to assume its common. Executives at several large companies were arrested, as well as private detectives at large agencies, on suspicion of using Trojan horse programs to spy on competitors computers. Not just technology companies were involved, but auto importers.

Israelis and Israeli companies are probably more savvy about computer security, either at the attacker or victim end, than people in other Western countries, although perhaps this indicates a surprising level of sophistication and interest on the part of the police.
I have to wonder why we dont get cases like this in the U.S., because I have to assume the same stuff is going on.

The scandal coalesces a number of trends that had already been widely identified: The change of motivation for malware authoring from vandalism to crime-for-profit; the wide distribution of malware writing skills and free availability of worm and Trojan code; and inadequacy of many security solutions to unidentified threats.

The early mail worms were just experiments, partly to see how successful they could be and partly as practice for some more serious goal. It wasnt long before the function of these worms, the bread and butter of malware for a long time, was to install a back door so that the computer could be controlled as part of a network to perform tasks for criminals, including spammers.

Creating these "bot armies" is the main function of most of the malware we read about, both the mail worms and the Trojan horses that are set up for download. Most of it is not targeted, but thrown up on the wall to see what sticks. In other words, its blasted out to the Internet generally, and if it spreads, it spreads.

Most readers dont know it, but there are a lot more of these worms and Trojans than they know. I follow threat monitoring services that report on them and there are several new versions of such threats every day. Theyre all extremely dangerous, but like random mutations in DNA, most of them die quickly. Ive wondered for a while why there are so many new versions, and I think it may have to do with the motivation of experimentation.

Its rare these days for new families of attacks to come out. Most variants come from sites and IRC channels where source code is freely exchanged, and some malware comes with its own source code embedded. Step 1 is to make some small variation and distribute it. But just because you make a useful variation doesnt mean you have to distribute it.

Next page: Theyd never do that!

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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