Stopping malware that mutates on demand

Tens of thousands of malware variants are created every month, and many anti-virus programs cannot keep up

Server-side polymorphism is a challenging problem for anti-malware software vendors. Much of today's malware, such as the Storm worm, creates tens of thousands of variants each month, a development that has made many anti-virus software programs that use static signatures significantly less accurate.

Many of today's worms and bots, which make up a large portion of the malware out on the Internet, launch from innocently infected Web sites. The criminal (or the criminal's automated program) breaks into the innocent Web site and injects code that then tries to infect every visitor running unpatched software. If the visiting user is fully patched, the site will prompt the user to install a "needed" program. The users, not realizing that their favorite trusted site is infected with malware, often follow these instructions.

The first software that is downloaded to the user's machine and executed is a small malicious program with only one intention: silently install more malicious programs. The "downloader" installs anywhere from a handful to dozens of other malicious programs, each coming from a different infected or malicious Web host on the Internet. The eventual client-side program is intended to steal money (one way or another) or to be used in a distributed denial of service attack.

The programs and scripts used in these malicious exploits are often unscannable by traditional anti-virus scanners. The malware is not recognized by the signature recognition engine of the anti-malware program because the program never existed before. It's a "one-off." Every separate user connection to an infected Web server results in a different version of essentially the same malware program.

Mutating malware

Variant and mutating malware is nothing new. It's been around for more than two decades. What is new is that instead of the malware program itself doing the mutating, the pseudo-polymorphism (it really isn't true polymorphism) is generated by the malicious server-side program. Until the user connects to the generating software, the malicious variant doesn't exist. The malicious coding on the server creates a copy of the malware program, but re-encodes or packs the program, using a different packing engine. Even before the packing, it changes the names of the internal variables used, along with subroutine names and program logic locations. Program instructions and subroutines get moved around, encoded with arbitrary ASCII characters, and even the malicious payload is created on the fly.

Who cares whether anti-virus companies get the malicious sample and make a signature? The malware has never existed before and won't exist again. Server-side polymorphism has created another challenge in the anti-virus world.

Previously, mutating viruses could be recognized by the internal coding used to conduct the mutating, some of which can't be hidden if the result is going to mutate properly. Anti-virus vendors figured out that they could forget trying to recognize the actual malware, which could take a billion different forms. Instead they just look for the code of the static mutation engine. Authors of polymorphic malware have tried to complicate the process by morphing the mutation engine signature, with varying degrees of success.

With server-side polymorphism, the mutation engine is left on the originating server. The malware doesn't have a static mutation engine component to identify in the first place. Add to this the fact that the mutating code is packed, and often re-packed again many times, and anti-virus scanners have their work cut out for them. It's no surprise that anti-virus software has been declining in accuracy against new, "one-off" threats. But like the AV vendors have done for 20 years against emerging threats, they are battling back.

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Roger A. Grimes

InfoWorld
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