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Phagocytes in Cyberspace

Marc , Associate Editor in Chief

Pages: pp. 3-4

Let us reflect on the evolution of malware as our industry has progressed during the 30-plus years since computers moved out of the mainframe datacenter cathedrals and into the personal computer bazaars. We might be moving back to cathedrals these

days with the expansion of cloud computing, but the personal computer is here to stay in one form or another—whether it's desktop or laptop or PDA or smartphone, and whether it's a stand-alone system with fat client software or a network device with thinner clients.

In the early days of computing, malware was transmitted by infected floppy disks. Authors were amateurs, virulence was low, and the risk was relatively minor—mostly an inconvenience. Later, the computing universe got larger and more densely connected as PCs became cheaper and the Internet and the Web made distributing software cheaper and easier. The software industry in turn made the installation of software easier, accommodating the needs of non-hobbyist users who had little tolerance for technical complexity. Malware authors did likewise, though perhaps for different reasons.

If we look at the history of disease, we see similar changes as biological communities evolved. The higher-population densities of towns and cities sped disease propagation. Adding injury to injury, sharing critical resources like water wells and food markets made propagation an easier problem for bacteria to solve, thus creating a challenge for us. The economic benefits of clustering in cities were in increasing tension with the hygiene problems that emerged from higher population density and the speedups in disease propagation that resulted.

Malware Propagation

Today we see a world in which malware has become a lucrative global industry, for both the offense and the defense. Organized criminals tend a complex interdependent ecosystem in which bot herders supervise vast arrays of zombie PCs. These herders pay malware distributors anywhere from a few cents to a dollar or more for each new machine infected. These botnets are hired out by the hour through professionally designed and implemented websites that accept credit cards and offer online support. What does one do with hired botnet hours? Why, one distributes spam for a fee, or attacks the websites of small- and medium-sized businesses to support the income of a protection racket, or distributes malware to accumulate zombies for another botnet. Malware development is so lucrative that the producers have established companies complete with human resources departments and paintball outings for employees.

The number of zombie PCs is huge. Reliable numbers for total zombies aren't available, but McAfee claimed to have measured in the first quarter of 2009 an increase of 12 million IP addresses behaving like zombies. 0-day exploits are likewise growing in number. Signature-based antimalware software has fallen further and further behind the bad guys, who use tools that enable them to custom design malware by checking boxes on a GUI. The new malware is polymorphic, allowing hundreds or thousands of versions, each with a different signature for a single virus. Enterprising malware knows how to thwart defensive software. In the early days, it would simply halt the antivirus software. Later, it would uninstall the software. The best modern malware surreptitiously alters the defensive software to blind it to the malware, such as by tampering with the signature files, defeating its responses.

Grandma in Iowa might very well have a PC that's running zombie software from two different botnets, but she doesn't notice that her machine is infected or that it has participated in dozens of DDoS attacks and sourced thousands of pieces of spam. The bot software is pretty savvy these days—it lies low when grandma's using the machine and avoids contending for critical resources so as not to attract grandma's attention.

Defensive Strategies

Our industry continues to design and implement systems as if each will operate in a malware-free environment forever. A process running an application in a contemporary operating system trusts the services provided to it by the kernel. When developers build distributed systems that orchestrate several processes to cooperate in a larger task, the good ones might cross-authenticate to ensure that they're talking to the appropriate process, and the better ones might secure the traffic between nodes, but it's pretty rare for a process to verify that its correspondent is running the right software version, and almost unknown for the process to check on the operating system kernel and the services that it provides.

In the biological world, by contrast, virtually every organism survives with significant numbers of hostile bacteria and viruses in and around its body. Studies show hundreds of distinct bacterial species living on the skin of typical human subjects, and we know that the digestive tract is home to thousands of bacteria, many of which can cause lethal sickness if they were to get out of the gut and into more vulnerable parts of the body. Despite our intimate proximity to dangerous bio-malware, we are generally oblivious. The body keeps the bacteria and viruses in check.

The body has a sophisticated IFF (identify friend or foe) system that helps it distinguish between "thee" and "me" and to attack the "thee." The odd bacterial or viral illness and even the occasional pandemic represent the exceptions that prove the rule. By and large, we survive as individuals and even thrive in the presence of some pretty bad stuff. Most of our body's defensive actions take place below the threshold of awareness. Sometimes the basic defenses fail to keep the malware in check, so you develop a fever indicating that something, perhaps an infection, is amiss. If the defenses fail further, you have a funeral.

Maybe it's time for the good guys (that's us, if you aren't following along in the script) to reconsider our defensive strategies. The designers of the Kerberos authentication system explicitly assumed that the bad guys were going to be on the network and set themselves the task of designing an authentication system that didn't rely on the network's sterility. Of course, the Kerberos designers' conception of bad guys was limited to mischievous undergraduates, not organized criminal gangs, but the key insight was correct.

Can we further weaken the trust assumptions underlying our system designs? What would software look like if the applications didn't trust the file system, or if the file system didn't trust the operating system? We've made some progress on this front, with TPM (trusted platform module) hardware deployed in a number of industries, but we haven't yet established an adequate level of paranoia in system designers.

The bacteria and viruses that threaten our bodies evolved over time, whereas the malware that threatens our computers has been designed by clever software engineers. Our antimalware defenses don't adapt to their threat environment locally; at present, they depend on a small number of managers working at antivirus companies. The signature-based antimalware systems are increasingly challenged by scale and quality control problems. (A misbehaving antimalware system is sort of like an immune system under the influence of HIV—a threat that started life as a defensive system.)

Can we build defensive systems that analyze the behavior of malware and react by disabling it? Is there a graduated response mechanism that we can articulate that will allow our defenses to slow malware down while they study it and decide whether to shut it down? Would it be enough to cripple the malware and reduce its virulence?

Work is already under way with some of these assumptions at places like the University of New Mexico and Microsoft Research, but not nearly enough. We've clearly reached the end of the line with classical approaches and assumptions. Now is the time for radical thinking.

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