Post-New Years Sobriety, Guaranteed

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-12-08 Print this article Print

Opinion: There's a specific attack coming, and we can stop it, but e-mail worms in general will continue to spread because there's not enough interest in stopping them.

You dont often get warning about a malware outbreak, let alone a month in advance. But according to iDefense, a security consulting firm owned by Verisign, on Jan. 5, 2006, there will be a substantial outbreak of the Sober worm. Its a Friday, so you might want to plan a three-day weekend. Ill probably be writing about the whole affair.

Remember the big Sober outbreak on Nov. 22? Its still very much alive, and in the last few days Ive actually gotten an escalating number of copies of it in my own mail. In fact, Postini claims that this Sober variant is the most successful mail worm in history.

iDefense analyzed the code from that outbreak and says that the infected systems are programmed, on Jan. 5, to download new code and run it. There have been times in the past when a worm was analyzed early enough that we knew that a further escalation was coming, and when. I recall with the Mydoom worms that it became known they would commit DDOS attacks on and In the end, Microsoft was able to protect themselves effectively; little SCO wasnt as lucky, but the threat passed after some time.

Im vacillating over how serious this outbreak can be. On the one hand, it would seem that there are a lot of Sober-infected systems out there and they have a high capability for transmission. On the other, we have over a month to counter it.

The first and most obvious way to counter it is to identify the sites from which the worm will download new code and target them for enforcement. All of the information about the sites should be in the code itself, as analyzed by iDefense and numerous other companies.

This could preempt the whole attack, although Im nervous about being confident of it. It does seem that this Sobers author made a mistake in allowing a month and a half after the outbreak before it did this update.

Why did the author put such a long delay in the program? The answer is potentially ugly. You might recall that some earlier Sober variants spread extreme German nationalist propaganda, and the date of the outbreak was timed to coincide with the end of World War II in Europe.

iDefense notes that Jan. 5 is the 87th anniversary of the founding of the Nazi party (actually its the founding of a forerunner of the Nazi party), and the day before a major German political convention. This seems right in character with Sobers previous behavior.

Of course, Sober has made it this far, and probably on the same steady diet of credulous, unprotected users and existing botnets that keep the other top worms in business when we know very well how to stop them on any particular system.

Theres not a whole lot more that normal users can do about this coming threat than they should be doing in any event: run anti-virus and keep it updated, dont open attachment, etc., etc.

And while we know what to do when we find a system with Sober or any other specific attack, we dont really know how many systems are infected. When Postini says that it has quarantined more than 441 million Sober-infected messages since Nov. 22 (according to the Washington Post), that doesnt say how many systems sent those messages. Is it a large number of systems each sending out a small or moderate number of messages, or is it a relatively small number of systems efficiently spamming large numbers of messages? Anti-virus companies and mail security vendors like Postini may know more about how many systems they are seeing, but they arent talking about it.

In fact, perhaps this is the missing part of mail worm research. If the companies analyzing large numbers of attacks knew the identities (IP address and time-stamp) of the attacks and shared them, wed have a list of infected systems that could be researched and brought to the attention of ISPs.

Of course, too many ISPs dont care and dont want to know this information because they might have to act on it. Since the Internet community has been lukewarm to other efforts, such as SMTP authentication, that would make things difficult for mail worms, it seems that nobody really cares that much. Mail worms will be with us for a while.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. More from Larry Seltzer
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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