The virus world is undergoing a fundamental shift toward a new type of threat, according to the head of research at anti-virus company Symantec.
Kicking off the first day of the annual Virus Bulletin Conference in Vancouver today, Carey Nachenberg said that even with all the damage that computer viruses have done, they pale in comparison to what we have seen and have yet to see from the computer 'Worm'.
He explained that computer viruses are programs designed to spread from one file to another on a single PC and depend on user behaviour to spread any further. Worms, such as Melissa and Explore.Zip, on the other hand are designed to spread from PC to PC via the network and can propogate themselves.
"Viruses spread in human time - in days and months. Worms work in Internet time, they spread themselves in minutes and seconds," said Nachenberg. "The infamous Melissa only required a user to open a single infected document to spread itself to hundreds of thousands of users!"
He added: "As worms get faster and faster it will affect our entire economy. What if Melissa had been malicious and targeted at the top 10 financial institutions. A super Melissa could be a matter for international security."
He said that despite the fact that computer Worms have been around for more than 10 years, they are starting to spread today because of four factors.
"We have a homogenous computing platform today. Around 200 million PCs are connected to the Internet and 90 per cent are using Windows. Secondly, everything is becoming more connected. All these computers can talk to each other within seconds. Third, our systems today are more easily programmable than ever before and fourth, we have more cheaply available systems," said Nachenberg.
He also warned that the threat will move into the home: "Whatever happens in business - as technology gets cheaper - it goes to the home. We will see the migration of these threats to the home. They're sitting ducks, users work at home. How do you extend your security infrastructure to the home."
He also warned that wireless devices could also be set for the same fate. Currently, these devices are Rom based and can't be re-programmed, he said. But in three to five years they will be.
Nachenberg said that to tackle the problem, anti-virus vendors need to speed up the sample exchange process to speed up the posting of updates.
"Currently this is typically days or weeks this is OK with viruses, but not with worms," he said.
However, Paul Ducklin, head of research at UK based anti-virus company Sophos said that despite Nachenberg's warning over Worms, viruses are still a big risk. He said that Worms such as Melissa come with email attachments which say something like, "Urgent info inside, disregard Macro warning," whereas viruses may be included in documents sent by a legitimate member of a company.
"If a boss sends his secretary an infected document and gives instructions to send it to the entire company, this will get done and will spread very quickly. With all the publicity, users are more aware of the type of messages sent out with Melissa," he said.
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