Introduction to data, programs and malicious code
By themselves, programs are seldom security threats. The programs operate on data, taking action only when data and state changes trigger it. Much of the work done by a program is invisible to users, so they are not likely to be aware of any malicious code activity. For instance, when was the last time you saw a bit? Do you know in what form a document file is stored? If you know a document resides somewhere on a disk, can you find it? Can you tell if a game program does anything in addition to its expected interaction with you? Which files are modified by a word processor when you create a document? Most users cannot answer these questions.
However, since computer data are not usually seen directly by users, malicious people can make programs serve as vehicles to access and change data and other programs. Let us look at the possible effects of malicious code and then examine in detail several kinds of programs that can be used for interception or modification of data.
Malicious code behaves in unexpected ways
We think of the malicious code as lurking inside our system: all or some of a program that we are running or even a nasty part of a separate program that somehow attaches itself to another (good) program.
A malicious code attaches in situation like when you install a major software package, such as a word processor, a statistical package, or a plug-in from the Internet, you ran one command, typically called INSTALL or SETUP. From there, the installation program took control, creating some files, writing in other files, deleting data and files, and perhaps renaming a few that it would change. A few minutes and a quite a few disk accesses later, you had plenty of new code and data, all set up for you with a minimum of human intervention. Other than the general descriptions on the box, in the documentation files, or on the web pages, you had absolutely no idea exactly what “gifts” you had received.
You hoped all you received was good, and it probably was. The same uncertainty exists when you unknowingly download an application, such as a Java applet or an ActiveX control, while viewing a web site. Thousands or even millions of bytes of programs and data are transferred, and hundreds of modifications may be made to your existing files, all occurring without your explicit consent or knowledge.
Malicious code can do anything any other program can
Writing a message on a computer screen, stopping a running program, generating a sound, or erasing a stored file are some of the activites a malicious code can do.
Or malicious code can do nothing at all right now; it can be planted to lie dormant, undetected, until some event triggers the code to act. The trigger can be a time or date, an interval (for example, after 30 minutes), an event (for example, when a particular program is executed), a condition (for example, when communication occurs on a modem), a count (for example, the fifth time something happens), some combination of these, or a random situation.
In fact, malicious code can do different things each time, or nothing most of the time with something dramatic on occasion. In general, malicious code can act with all the predictability of a two-year-old child: We know in general what two-year-old children do, we may even know what a specific two-year-old child often does in certain situations, but two-year-old children have an amazing capacity to do the unexpected.
Malicious code runs under the user’s authority. Thus, malicious code can touch everything the user can touch, and in the same ways. Users typically have complete control over their own program code and data files; they can read, write, modify, append, and even delete them. And well they should. But malicious code can do the same, without the user’s permission or even knowledge.
Kinds of Malicious Code
Malicious code or a rogue program is the general name for unanticipated or undesired effects in programs or program parts, caused by an agent intent on damage. This definition eliminates unintentional errors, although they can also have a serious negative effect. This definition also excludes coincidence, in which two benign programs combine for a negative effect. The agent is the writer of the program or the person who causes its distribution.
By this definition, most faults found in software inspections, reviews, and testing do not qualify as malicious code, because we think of them as unintentional. However, keep in mind as you read this unit that unintentional faults can in fact invoke the same responses as intentional malevolence; a benign cause can still lead to a disastrous effect.
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2 thoughts on “(Part One – Serie 3 of 5) What is malicious code (software) and how can it be overcame”
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