Monday, September 24, 2007

PC Security DIY Part I: Malware - The Most Wanted Cyber Criminal

By Coenraad De Beer

More or less 3 weeks ago, several anti-scammer websites fell victim to DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks by the Storm botnet. The comments made on blogs and news sites about these attacks, made it clear once again that cyber security experts are well aware of the dangers of malware infections, which are the backbone of any botnet, as well as the impact these infections have on the online industry. The fact that security experts realise these problems is all good and well, but it does not really help addressing the problem. Normal computer users need to understand the implications of malware infections as well, but more importantly, they have to carry the consequences of their actions if they refuse to take appropriate preventative measures against malware.

Before we start, I would like to explain a couple of terms to users not familiar with DDoS attacks and botnets. A botnet is a network of software robots controlled remotely by crackers. A software robot in this specific case is a compromised computer, infected with specific malware types like Trojan horses and worms. A compromised computer is also called a "zombie computer". A botnet is therefore a collection of compromised or "zombie" computers. I am not going into the details of a DDoS attack, but a Denial of Service attack basically happens when a botnet sends thousands, even millions, of communication requests to a web server. This results in a bottleneck of incoming traffic, causing the server to crash, or making it so slow that it cannot serve the website to normal visitors anymore. An attack from a big botnet will therefore have a much larger impact on a web server than an attack from a smaller botnet. Okay, now that we have the jargon out of the way, lets delve deeper into the impact of malware infections on the Internet as a whole, but also for the individual Internet user.

The Internet is often referred to as the information superhighway. Off course the Internet as we know it today, is much more than just an information superhighway, the Internet has become a digital world where many offline tasks can be done online as well. You can work, play, recruit, date, shop, chat, watch TV, listen radio and do many other things online. But for the sake of this article I will stick to the term information superhighway, because the rules of the road fit perfectly in with what I want to illustrate. According to Wikipedia, it is estimated that up to one quarter of all personal computers connected to the Internet, are part of a botnet. This estimate is not that hard to believe, I will even go so far to say that this figure may even be bigger than a quarter of the Internet's population, especially if you take into account the rate at which malware infections spread through the Internet. Ignorance plays a big role in malware infections, but don't leave negligence out of the equation. If it only stopped at ignorance and negligence, large and influential companies are able to address the problem, but they are unwilling to sacrifice profit for the safety of other Internet users.

Internet Service providers are in pole position to address the increasing threat of malware infections, the one thing that's making botnets grow larger and larger by the day. Unfortunately they are only interested in making money instead of providing a safe and quality service to their loyal and honest customers. No they would rather keep the clients distributing malware, sending out spam or taking part in Denial of Service attacks, because it means loss of revenue for them if they decide to suspend the services or terminate the accounts of these clients. Most ISPs will state in their Terms of Service that they do not tolerate this kind of behaviour, but it is only done to make them look great on paper, they seldom enforce these terms. John Masters, anti-spam activist and a dedicated supporter of Cyber Top Cops, sent me an e-mail the other day, suggesting that we should roll out penalties against people who use unprotected computers connected to the Internet. Although I realise the difficulty of getting something like this into place, I personally think it is a great idea and I wholeheartedly agree, but before we start to punish the user, start with the ISP for not taking action against the user.

It makes a lot of sense to fine people who use unprotected computers on the Internet. This is why I referred to the information superhighway earlier in this article. The Internet can be compared to a real highway, where several road safety rules apply. Driving on a highway with a vehicle that's not roadworthy does not only put your own safety at risk, but also the safety of other road users. If a traffic officer pulls you off the road and find that your vehicle is not roadworthy, you will most probably receive a fine (unless you bribe the traffic officer). If you continue to drive like this you may end up with a suspended driver's licence. The same principle applies to computer security. If you use an unprotected computer on the Internet you're not only putting your own safety at risk, but the safety of other Internet users as well. If your ISP becomes aware of the fact that you're connecting to the Internet without appropriate, up to date anti-malware software installed on your computer, you are supposed to be fined for putting the safety of all other Internet users at risk. They should suspend your services if you continue to connect to the Internet with an unprotected computer.

Your computer may be distributing malware, sending out spam, phishing e-mails and advance fee fraud scams. Your computer may even be used in Denial of Service attacks. So you end up becoming an accomplice in Internet crime. You unknowingly become a spammer, a scammer or a malware distributor. By using an unprotected computer you contribute to cyber crime instead of fighting it. That's not all, the malware may be monitoring your keystrokes, capturing everything you type, stealing passwords, e-mail addresses, account numbers, social security numbers, credit card numbers, names, telephone numbers, physical addresses... can you see where I'm going with this? These programs are able to compile a complete profile about yourself, this information is then transmitted back to the operator of the malware, who may use it to commit fraud in your name, in other words steal your identity. The perpetrator may even clean out your bank account, open credit cards or take out loans in your name and guess who is going to receive the bills at the end of the month, you!

What are the practical implications of implementing a penalty system for reckless Internet users? First of all, the ISP needs to have solid evidence, proving that the guilty party was really using an unprotected computer. Secondly, if the user had anti-malware software installed on his/her computer, the ISP needs to prove that the software was outdated. Finally, if the user had up to date anti-malware software installed, the ISP needs to prove that the software was not appropriate for preventing malware infections. This means that anti-malware software needs to comply with certain safety standards before they can be accepted as approved anti-malware solutions. This will effectively force all anti-malware developers to put their software through specific tests, conducted by a computer security standards authority. This will also cause anti-malware application prices to rise, which may pull the plug on the development of free anti-malware solutions, unless the developers certify these free applications as well. The ISP should use special software to check whether these approved anti-malware applications are installed on the client's computer. The software should send out several warnings to the clients who do not comply with these standards, giving them a reasonable amount of time to attend to the problems and providing detailed instructions on how to resolve them. Access to the Internet should only be terminated if the user fails to respond to these warnings.

Many people might ask, how should I update my anti-malware application if my Internet access is terminated? Your Internet access should only be terminated if you fail to respond to the warning notifications sent to you. If you end up with a terminated Internet access account, it means you ignored the notifications and you should have thought about the implications of your actions before you decided to ignore them. Other may claim that they are computer illiterate and cannot install software or keep them up to date. Most anti-malware applications update themselves and it does not take a rocket scientist to install them. With most of these installations you simply need to click on the "Next" button until you see a "Finish" button. If you can surf the Internet, then I'm sure you know how to click a button. I understand that not every Internet user is a computer expert, so if you find it difficult to install software, join an online forum like, or and ask for assistance. It is extremely important to secure your computer before it gets infected with malware.

I just painted a pretty grim picture, didn't I? The burden placed on Internet Service Providers to check up on clients, to prove that clients are using unprotected computers, to penalise those who disobey the rules and to close down the accounts of regular offenders. Then there is the problem of high anti-malware prices and no more free anti-malware solutions for the people who cannot afford expensive anti-malware protection. But this is where the Internet is heading if we do not take action now. Online fraud is causing consumers to loose confidence in Internet shopping. Phishing scams are making users afraid of signing up for Internet banking services. People are weary of online payment and trading services like PayPal and eBay, no matter how safe they claim to be. Spammers are stealing bandwidth and the Internet user have to cough up for the costs. Expensive hardware and software is needed to fend off Denial of Service attacks. Malware is at the root of all these problems. It is the biggest contributor to cyber crime and eliminating malware is like removing a species from the food chain. This will be a big blow to spam and bot networks, resulting in less spam and phishing scams, fewer Denial of Service attacks and fewer stolen identities, passwords and credit card numbers. All the money saved through proper prevention of malware, including malware related problems like spam and Denial of Service attacks, can be utilised to build better protection against malware and assist companies to continue the development of free anti-malware solutions for home users.

So what is the bottom line? Internet Service Providers need to take responsibility for their networks. Customers are paying for Internet access, free from spam and malware attacks. It is the responsibility of the ISP to keep spam and malware infections within acceptable limits. Proper legislation needs to be put into place and governments need to take action against ISPs if they allow these threats to rise beyond acceptable limits. How do ISPs keep these threats within acceptable limits? Listen to the complaints sent through to your abuse departments, stop ignoring them, terminate the services of regular offenders and publish these actions for everyone to see. Make examples of those who do not want to listen and soon enough you will have people sticking to the rules. People will continue to do what they want if they know there is no punishment for their wrongdoing.

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, providers of free malware removal assistance and helpful Internet security tips for the novice user. In the next instalment of the PC Security DIY article series, we will look at the foundation of Internet Security, using a secure browser and e-mail client and getting into safe browsing and e-mail reading habits.

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