After years of success deploying more effective and smarter defenses, anti-virus researchers contacted last week in the wake of the MyDoom outbreak acknowledged for one of the first times that the battle may be getting away from them.
The MyDoom virus, which hit Jan. 26 and infected several-hundred-thousand machines, is the fastest-spreading virus in the history of the Internet, experts said. At its peak late last week, MyDoom had infected one in every 12 pieces of e-mail, according to MessageLabs Inc., a New York-based e-mail security company. MyDoom also is the latest in a line of recent viruses that, while not particularly innovative, have been maddeningly effective.
Anti-virus software is an inherently reactive technology, leaving users as the first line of defense against new viruses. But despite endless admonishments to refrain from opening e-mail attachments, whether from home or work, many users continue to be fooled. In fact, whereas most viruses start from home PCs, MyDoom began from inside a corporate network.
“There are a lot of Fortune 100 companies infected,” said David Perry, global director of education at Trend Micro Inc., in Cupertino, Calif. “Theres nothing entertaining about this.”
Social engineering tactics such as MyDooms disguising itself as a returned or rejected e-mail message make it harder for users to distinguish legitimate messages from infected ones.
“[The virus writer] obfuscated the message to the point where it was alluring. The innovation coming out of these guys is slim,” said Ian Hameroff, eTrust security strategist at Computer Associates International Inc., in Islandia, N.Y.
Virus writers are now loading their creations with extras such as back doors, mail proxies for relaying spam and keystroke loggers for stealing passwords. As a result, theyre guaranteed that the viruses will continue to do damage after theyve been removed from a computer.
By the end of last week, Symantec Corp. sensors were seeing as many as 2,000 unique machines scanning for PCs listening on port 3217, which is used by the back door MyDoom installs.
Next page: When will the tide turn?
All this has left many in the industry wondering when the tide will turn. Much of the problem, experts say, is that security still does not get the attention it deserves inside enterprises. “I think [that executives] are aware that something needs to be done but not what,” said Karen Worstell, chief security officer at AT&T Wireless Services Inc., in Redmond, Wash. “We have to tell them that its not paranoia. Its good sense.”
Dan Geer, principal scientist at Verdasys Inc., said in his keynote at the Black Hat Briefings conference here that he believes its time for a kind of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the Internet. But to work properly, the center would need real-time data from across the Internet, which would require victims to report whats happened to them, something that is exceedingly rare right now.
For some companies, educating executives and other employees about security issues and best practices has been just as important as any piece of technology for improving security. Premera Blue Cross, a health care company in Mountlake Terrace, Wash., requires that every employee go through a 90-minute training session on security and sends out regular e-mail flashes reminding workers of policies and procedures and warning of new threats.
“We want everyone to know about security. The average top executive doesnt understand security, but we have to change that,” said Allen Kerr, vice president of IT infrastructure and information security officer at Premera. “Security is an imperative. Its no longer just a good idea.”