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Ways to deliver Malicious Software

Malware is not sentient (...not yet) and can’t just appear out of thin air; it needs to be transported and delivered to a computer or installed on a computer system in some manner. This can be done in several ways. The simplest way would be for attackers to gain physical access to an unprotected computer and perform their malicious work locally. But because it can be difficult to obtain physical access, this can be done in several other ways, as shown in the upcoming sections. Some of the methods listed next can also be used by an attacker to simply gain access to a computer, make modifications, and so on, in addition to delivering the malware.

Via Software, Messaging, and Media

Malware can be delivered via software in many different ways. A person who e-mails a zipped file might not even know that malware also exists in that file. The recipients of the e-mail will have no idea that the extra malware exists unless they have software to scan their e-mail attachments for it. Malware could also be delivered via FTP. Because FTP servers are inherently insecure, it’s easier than you might think to upload insidious files and other software. Malware is often found among P2P networks and bit torrents. Great care should be taken by users who use these technologies. Malware can also be embedded within, and distributed by, websites through the use of corrupting code or bad downloads. Malware can even be distributed by advertisements. And of course, removable media can victimize a computer as well. CD-ROMs, DVDs, and USB flash drives can easily be manipulated to automatically run malware when they are inserted into the computer. This is when AutoRun is not your friend! The removable media could also have hidden viruses or worms and possibly logic bombs configured to set that malware off at specific times.

Active Interception

Active interception (also known as active inception) normally includes a computer placed between the sender and the receiver in an effort to capture and possibly modify information. If a person can eavesdrop on your computer’s data session, then that data can be stolen, modified, or exploited in other ways. Examples of this include session theft and man-in-the-middle attacks.

Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation is the act of exploiting a bug or design flaw in a software or firmware application to gain access to resources that normally would’ve been protected from an application or user. This results in a user gaining additional privileges, more than were originally intended by the developer of the application; for example, if a regular user gains administrative control, or if a particular user can read another user’s e-mail without authorization.


Backdoors are used in computer programs to bypass normal authentication and other security mechanisms in place. Originally, backdoors were used by developers as a legitimate way of accessing an application, but soon after they were implemented by attackers who would use backdoors to make changes to operating systems, websites, and network devices. Or the attacker would create a completely new application that would act as a backdoor, for example Back Orifice, which enables a user to control a Windows computer from a remote location. Often, it is installed via a Trojan horse; this particular one is known as a remote access Trojan or RAT. Some worms install backdoors on computers so that remote spammers can send junk e-mail from the infected computers, or so an attacker can attempt privilege escalation. Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done about backdoors aside from updating or patching the system infected and keeping on top of updates. However, if network administrators were to find out about a new backdoor, they should inform the manufacturer of the device or the application as soon as possible. Backdoors are less common nowadays, because their practice is usually discouraged by software manufacturers and by makers of network devices.

Logic Bombs

Logic bombs are code that has, in some way, been inserted into software; it is meant to initiate one of many types of malicious functions when specific criteria are met. Logic bombs blur the line between malware and a malware delivery system. They are indeed unwanted software but are intended to activate viruses, worms, or Trojans at a specific time. Trojans set off on a certain date are also referred to as time bombs. The logic bomb ticks away until the correct time, date, and other parameters have been met. So, some of the worst bombs do not incorporate an explosion whatsoever. The logic bomb could be contained within a virus or loaded separately. Logic bombs are more common in the movies than they are in real life, but they do happen, and with grave consequences; but more often than not, they are detected before they are set off. If you, as a systems administrator, suspect that you have found a logic bomb, or a portion of the code of a logic bomb, you should notify your superior immediately and check your organization’s policies to see if you should take any other actions. Action could include placing network disaster recovery processes on standby; notifying the software vendor; and closely managing usage of the software including, perhaps, withdrawing it from service until the threat is mitigated. Logic bombs are the evil cousin of the Easter egg.

Easter eggs historically have been a platonic extra that was added to an OS or application as a sort of joke; often, it was missed by quality control and subsequently released by the manufacturer of the software. An example of an Easter egg is the capability to force a win in Windows XP’s Solitaire by pressing the ALT+Shift+2 keys simultaneously. Easter eggs are not normally documented (being tossed in last minute by humorous programmers) and are meant to be harmless, but nowadays they are not allowed by responsible software companies and are thoroughly scanned for. Because an Easter egg (and who knows what else) can possibly slip past quality control, and because of the growing concerns about malware in general, many companies have adopted the idea of Trustworthy Computing, which is a newer concept that sets standards for how software is designed, coded, and checked for quality control. Sadly, as far as software goes, the Easter egg’s day has passed.

Botnets and Zombies

I know what you are thinking—the names of these attacks and delivery methods are getting a bit ridiculous. But bear with me; they make sense and are deadly serious. Allow me to explain—malware can be distributed throughout the Internet by a group of compromised computers, known as a botnet, and controlled by a master computer (where the attacker resides). The individual compromised computers in the botnet are called zombies. This is because they are unaware of the malware that has been installed on them. This can occur in several ways, including automated distribution of the malware from one zombie computer to another. Now imagine if all the zombie computers had a specific virus or other attack loaded, and a logic bomb was also installed, ready to set off the malware at a specific time. If this were done to hundreds or thousands of computers, a synchronized attack of great proportions could be enacted on just about any target. Often, this is known as a distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attack, and is usually perpetuated on a particularly popular server, one that serves many requests. If a computer on your network is continually scanning other systems on the network, is communicating with an unknown IRC server or other unknown master server, and/or has hundreds of outbound connections to various websites, chances are the computer is part of a botnet.

Published on Sat 07 April 2012 by Mal Torrance in Security with tag(s): malware