Post-New Years Sobriety, Guaranteed

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 microsoft.com and sco.com. 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.

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