Q&A: Malware analysis
by Mirko Zorz - Monday, 1 March 2010.
Is there an upcoming malware menace we haven't realized yet, but should be on the lookout for?

There is a menace -- it's the global economy of malware developers and users. There is a great deal of money involved and the criminals who build and disseminate malware are multiplying. Malware is also going to evolve and propagate to new mediums. For example, USB thumbdrive-infecting malware is standard now, and there are already a few smart phone viruses out there banging around. As high-speed networking components and wireless technologies become more prevalent, itís only going to get worse. Malware is also working itself deeper into the system than ever before. Last year new forms of BIOS infecting malware appeared that can even survive 100% wipe and reinstallation of the operating system. Hypervisor technology was barely out of the virtual box and it already had malware variants waiting for it. It is safe to say going forward that if a hot new technology CAN be used by malware, it WILL be used to house, hide, or facilitate malware.

How has virtualization changed the way researchers analyze malware?

Virtualization makes it much easier and much more feasible to analyze malware. Virtualization has essentially given birth to an age of runtime analysis of malware. In the pre-virtualization days you really only had two choices: First, you could analyze a piece of malware "statically," which means you load an on-disk copy of the virus or malware into a disassembler tool and look at the code that WOULD run if you did execute it. Second, you could run the suspected virus code -- thereby infecting your computer with the virus which is also non-ideal for obvious reasons.

Fortunately we now live in a world where fast, viable, virtualization of an entire Windows operating system is possible. This advance has opened the door for a whole new class of automated runtime analysis tools that instrument and collect data on a REAL, RUNNING copy of the suspected malware package. This is especially important when you consider that today many malware packages are "packed" or self-decompressing, making them all but impossible to analyze using traditional, static, non-runtime-based techniques.

Since cybercriminals have realized the impact their research can do to their bottom line, we keep seeing increasingly sophisticated attacks of a targeted nature. How will these attacks impact the life of the average Internet user who spends most of its time on social networking sites?

Social networking sites are a growing area of attack. You can search on LinkedIn, for example, and find 375 nuclear physicists who have worked at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Social networking allows attackers to single out specific groups of individuals, and with targeted attacks on the rise, this is a significant threat.

The average Internet users can do a lot to educate and protect themselves. In general, it is absolutely critical to keep up-to-date with your operating systemís security patches. It is specifically very important to keep your Internet browser software updated as well since most malware infections today exploit security flaws in your Internet browser. Finally, if you're searching the Web with your favorite search engine and you encounter a link that looks potentially suspicious, try clicking on the "Preview" or "Cached" link if one is available. Many times this "preview" feature will allow you to view a safe, sanitized, offline copy of the Website in question which is usually enough information to determine if it is a site actually worth visiting.

What tools would you recommend to those interested in learning more about malware analysis?

On the commercial side of things, malware analysis doesn't get any easier than using HBGary's Responder product. You can trace all of the behavior of a malware program in just minutes. If you are on a budget or want to use free tools, you can download a number of great freeware utilities and tools.

For virtualization, you can download "Sun VirtualBox" or VMWare's freeware version of ESX which is called ESXi. You can also download a free debugger called "OllyDbg" that is an easy-to-use, GUI based usermode debugger that is very useful for single-step debugging certain malware packages. I'd also recommend the Microsoft-built debugger "windbg", especially if you're interested in researching kernel mode malware components. Microsoft also provides some very useful, free system utilities called "Process Explorer", "ProcMon", "FileMon", and "RegMon" (Previously from SysInternals).

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