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Computer Worms

Friday, January 25th, 2008

What is a Computer Worm?

Computer Worms wreak havoc by exploiting security loopholes and flaws in software design to propagate from one machine to another. Worms are different than a traditional virus in that they don’t spread by modifying programs on a single system, but rather by searching for and implanting destructive code onto other systems. Worms are able to rapidly replicate by hijacking an infected system’s resources to seek out and exploit other systems with a particular vulnerability. This predisposition to spread itself as quickly and widely as possible can often overload system memory as well as bring down entire corporate networks as traffic is consumed by the worms procedures.

Many worms come in the form of email file attachments, or as hidden additions to actual email messages, which trigger the execution of infectious code. The Melissa and ILOVEYOU email viruses are examples of worms that exploited the macro feature within Microsoft Office documents. A macro is a series of instructions that is intended to simply repetitive tasks. In the case of Melissa and ILOVEYOU, when an infected document was opened, a macro would copy itself into other documents, and then reproduce by emailing itself to the victim’s Outlook address book.

In 1999, the now-infamous Melissa worm caused $80 million in damages and infected thousands of systems at an alarming rate by emailing copies of itself to the first 50 people in a victims Outlook address book. Its powerful effects forced many large corporations, including Microsoft, to shut down their email systems while the virus was contained. In 2000, ILOVEYOU infected millions of computers using a method similar to “Melissa.” However, this new breed also relayed sensitive and valuable information, such as passwords, back to the creator of the worm.

Protection From Computer Worms

In addition to email, worms can also infect computers via web sites, file sharing systems, instant messages, and more. Therefore, any computer connected to the Internet runs the risk of being infected with a malicious worm. To protect computers from being infected with a worm, anti virus software should be used. Anti virus software runs in the background of a computer, preventing viruses, worms and other malware from causing harm.

Anti virus software utilize two primary methods for detecting and removing dangerous threats – virus definitions and heuristics. The virus definition method, the most common technique for detecting worms and viruses, scans all potentially malicious files against a master list known viruses and worms. Most anti virus software includes an auto-updating feature that enables the program to download definitions of new malware so that it can provide protection from the latest threats. The second method of virus/worm detection, heuristic scanning, identifies malware based on common malicious behaviors, enabling protection from viruses and worms that have not yet been added to the software’s definitions.

Top anti virus software companies include McAfee, Norton, Computer Associates, and AVG.

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