Building a Better Virus Trap

IBM i, Linux
March 10, 2017
City of Atlanta Ransomware Attack 2018


Not so long ago, viruses were just one of those little annoyances that come along with using a computer, akin to the gnat that orbits your head at the family picnic. But in recent years those pesky little pieces of code have steadily moved from simply popping up messages on your screen or deleting your Word files; they now target specific industries and serve as tools for real criminals. Unfortunately, changes happen so quickly that computer security policies struggle to keep pace. Whereas once a daily scan of a user’s PC could clean up the virus problem and a firewall could keep out prowlers, today a much more in-depth, multifaceted, layered approach is the only way to truly protect your valuable assets. Here’s a closer look.

The Changing Face of Security

When the first virus was created by Fred Cohen in 1983, the seeds of today’s scourge were planted. Cohen’s motives were more scientific than malicious, as he created the code to test a theory he had about programs that could self-replicate and spread. And while the means of transmission—a floppy disk—was much easier to control than today’s Internet and laptop computers, the method was eerily similar. The virus, which Cohen hid in a graphics program called VD, examined users’ permissions and used those permissions for its own purposes. Although the nature of viruses has changed drastically over the 30 years since Cohen’s experiment, permissions continue to represent a major risk to computing environments.

The most significant changes to the virus threat in recent years include:

  • A transition from “for kicks” destructiveness to a tool for criminals
  • A move from transmission by floppy disk and email to transmission by a wide range of means, sometimes passive with no user involvement
  • The targeting of specific industries, companies, and government agencies
  • Rapid reproduction that allows malicious code to go global in a matter of minutes
  • The infestation of systems and platforms that were once isolated from such threats

The increase in the means of transmission represents the greatest obstacle to controlling the security threat. Whereas email once represented a primary method of distribution for viruses and malicious code, today employee laptop computers and mobile devices connected to the corporate network—along with VPN connections, chat programs, file sharing programs, open ports, spyware and malware, and drive-by downloads by malicious Web pages—serve as sources of infection. Unfortunately, many of these are important tools in day-to-day business and controlling them is increasingly difficult.

An Evolving Threat

The IBM X-Force Trend and Risk Report is issued by the IBM X-Force research and development team to keep users informed about the changing nature of threats to system security. In the past, the report was issued twice each year. Beginning with the first quarter of 2014, the report has become a quarterly in order to better keep up with the pace of the evolving threat.

The Q1 2014 report, issued in February, highlights key developments in security risks and incidents, including:

  • An increase in the use of XSS (cross-site scripting) in attacks
  • Corporate losses of $136 per lost record of data (estimated by the Ponemon Institute)
  • Increased use of “watering hole” attacks, which involve injecting visitors to special interest websites with malware using browser and PHP vulnerabilities
  • Malvertising, a technique that delivers malicious code via drive-by download through infected banner ads placed on websites via advertising networks
  • 50% of application vulnerability exploitations now target Oracle Java, with the number of Java vulnerability disclosures growing from 68 in 2012 to 208 in 2013
  • Hacked variants of every application in the top 100 paid apps on Android, and rogue variants of half of the top 100 paid iOS apps

Corporations in the Crosshairs

The broad impact of malicious code, in which the attack is blindly released, has given way to focused, targeted attacks with specific goals. Corporations in a wide range of industries—and even government agencies—are increasingly finding themselves in the crosshairs as attackers lock in on achieving financial, political, or competitive goals. Here are just a few examples:

  • In February 2013, the US Federal Reserve revealed that the hacktivist group Anonymous compromised its systems and posted the names, email addresses, and phone numbers of more than 4,000 bankers who use the Federal Reserve system to a separate website where others could download them.
  • In October 2013, Adobe lost more than 3 million credit card numbers and the names and passwords of more than 150 million customers. More than 250,000 of these accounts belonged to government and military users. In a sign of the evolving goals of hackers, source code for many of Adobe’s applications was also stolen.
  • In December 2013, as many as 110 million credit card numbers and debit card PINs were stolen from US retailer Target. The company incurred $61 million in expenses related to the breach in the fourth quarter, only $44 million of which were offset by an insurance receivable. By February 2014 Target had seen a 46% decrease in profits.

What Lies Beneath…and Beyond

So just how does one go about eradicating viruses and malicious code from the system? As mentioned earlier, simply scanning PCs with anti-virus software was at one time enough to keep things clean. But nowadays, malicious code can jump from system to system and platform to platform with ease. It can hide on platforms that it does not so obviously affect, such as IBM i or UNIX, and can use those platforms to launch attacks on more vulnerable platforms such as Windows and Linux. Like roaches, for every virus you see, there are likely hundreds—if not thousands—more lurking under the surface. Spraying poison along the baseboard will kill the roaches that come out into the open, but it won’t get rid of the nest. The same holds true for viruses and malicious code.

But that’s not the only threat to security. Worms can scan your system remotely from the Internet and jump on whenever they find an unpatched security exposure. In this case, you’re being attacked from the darkness beyond. During 2013, the worm W32/Autorun.worm.aaeh was discovered hiding on IBM i-based systems where it was creating new files, inserting malicious code, and giving these files the same names as existing ones. These infected files then spread from the IFS to PCs across the network.

Patched programs can also represent a serious threat to the integrity of security. A consultant could install a root kit on your system without your knowledge in order to gain back door access in the future. Through this back door, that consultant could suck critical information out of the company for his own use. A third-party application that has been patched by the vendor to achieve a beneficial capability for the user could inadvertently compromise system security and open doors to malicious code.

And there’s also the threat posed by improper access to data by those inside the company. Unscrupulous employees with excessive access to data could steal information from the company and pass it to competitors or sell it to others. Disgruntled employees could intentionally delete critical information.

Safety in Layers

All of these issues—hidden viruses, port-scanning worms, patched programs, hackers from outside the company, and insiders with ill intent—call for a more thorough security plan than has been required in the past. Architects of physical security have long understood the benefit of layers in achieving their protection goals. The same concept applies to system security in the computer world and is your best bet when it comes to combating viruses, malicious code, and the actions that can open doors to them.

Layer #1: The Firewall

Firewalls have long been an important element of corporate computing security, and they are now even commonplace in home computing environments. While firewalls do provide important protection, there is a common misconception that they provide an impenetrable wall around the computing environment and therefore are the first and the last step to security. A firewall will keep out casual intruders and provide protection against unwanted incoming traffic. It will not, however, prevent viruses, malicious code, or hacks that enter the environment via email, portable devices, secured connections, or insiders. Firewalls also will not prevent downloads from the Internet, which could introduce malicious code to the system. For that, additional layers are required.

Layer #2: User IDs and Passwords

Strong user IDs and passwords are the next layer of defense against attacks on system security. If a hacker, a virus, or other malicious code gains access to the system despite the firewall, these access controls can eliminate a large percentage of the risk now facing the system.

Layer #3: Access Control

User IDs and passwords can be compromised, so for those who manage to get past that protective layer, access control to data on the user level is critical. Network security applications can give you control over which files and folders a given user can access, thereby reducing the chance that someone who compromises a given user ID and password will gain access to the company’s most sensitive and critical data. This layer also provides protection against threats originating from employees.

Layer #4: Scanning on All Systems

If a virus or malicious code makes it through the upper layers of your security and finds a home on the system, it is critical to quickly detect and immediately eradicate it and to do so on all systems that could host the code. This means that simply scanning PCs is not enough. If the virus is sitting in the IFS on IBM i, for example, but is surfacing on the PC, then cleaning only the PC means that you are treating the symptom but not curing the disease. If you have Windows PCs in your network, they all must have anti-virus software running. If you have an IBM Power Systems server running IBM i, it must have anti-virus software running. If you have Linux PCs, they must have anti-virus software running. Leaving any area unprotected can be counterproductive to the implementation of your other layers and could potentially defeat the overall goal of your security policy.

Layer #5: The Safety Net

Despite your best efforts, security breaches will occur. With a solid, layered approach to security, these breaches should be limited, but nevertheless you must have a last-ditch recovery plan in place. Daily backups are key, and supplemental software that can catch deleted files throughout the day can provide a thorough safety net that will allow you to easily recover any deleted data. This layer should also include an auditing process that examines the system and maintains a reasonable log that can be used to pinpoint the causes and results of a security breach to help prevent similar future occurrences.

Safe and Secure

Just as in the physical world, a multifaceted, layered approach to security will help you make your system safer and your company a shining example of modern IT security.


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