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Research Paper on Computer Viruses

While technology advances have brought many benefits to society there have also been technological abuses (1). In today’s generation, with the help of the Internet and the rapid growth of the personal computer in the average household, we are able to talk to and share information with people from all sides of the globe (2). Unfortunately this transformation of data has opened the doors for a new era of high tech crime – the computer virus. The Internet is now a complex gateway for transgression and immoral activities where often the perpetrators of the crime are far removed from the scene of the criminal activity and hidden behind a maze of double speak (3).

Computer viruses are enigmatic and grab our attention. They move silently from computer to computer under a shroud of secrecy and deceit. If they are not caught in time, these malicious programs can erase all the data off a hard drive, rearrange numbers in a spreadsheet file, or practically anything else a clever programmer can devise.

A computer virus is a potentially dangerous computer program designed with the intent of obliterating or corrupting data that it comes into contact with. Computer viruses are mysteriously hidden beneath seemingly innocuous programs, which explains the reason for their effective dissemination across the Internet. These malicious computer programs are designed to replicate themselves or insert copies of themselves into other programs when executed within the infected program (4). In order for a computer virus to perform its intended function it must be executed and the computer must then follow the virus’s directive code or instructions. These instructions are called the payload of the virus and are used to disrupt or change data files, display an irrelevant or unwanted message, or cause the operating system to malfunction (5).

Personal computers have always had to protect their programs, files, and irreplaceable data form fire, hard drive crashes, poorly written software, and a multitude of other possible catastrophes. As time has progressed the intricate and complex nature of computer technology has rapidly matured. Today a properly engineered virus can have a devastating effect on the Worldwide Internet showing just how sophisticated and interconnected human beings have become (6). For example, the Melissa Virus, which became a global phenomenon in March 1999, was so powerful that it forced Microsoft and a number of other very large companies to completely turn off their e-mail systems until the virus could be contained (7).Viruses have become a serious dilemma in recent years, and currently, thousands of known virus programs exist (8). The four most universally encountered malevolent programs are computer viruses, worms, Trojan horses and logic bombs.

A computer virus is a small piece of software that attaches itself to existent programs. For example, a virus might attach itself to an innocuous program such as a spreadsheet. Each time the spreadsheet program is activated, the virus is activated too, and from this, it then has the chance to duplicate by appending itself to other programs. The virus can manifest itself in numerous ways including signs on the screen concerning its existence, removal of memory or obliteration of hard drive contents.

As time has proceeded the convoluted and prevailing nature of the computer virus has flourished. Today there is a new type of a computer virus, most commonly acknowledged as the email virus. An example of an email virus is the ILOVEYOU Virus, which swept the computing world on May 4, 2002. This was an incredibly simple virus that contained a piece of code as an attachment. People who double clicked on the attachment allowed the code to implement. The code then dispatched copies of itself to everyone in the victim’s address book and started obliterating files on the victim’s machine. The reason this virus had such a devastating effect was because it was fuelled by the human willingness to double click on the executable, which in turn shows how venerable humans really are (9).

Like a virus, a worm is also a program that propagates itself (10). It is a small piece of software that is capable of replicating itself through the use of a network or security hole. Once a new copy of the worm has been made it will scrutinize the network for another machine that has a specific security hole. With this newly found security hole it will then make copies of itself to the new machine and begin the whole reproduction process again. Through the use of a computer network these sophisticated computer worms have the capability of expanding from a single copy incredibly quickly. For example, the Code Red worm replicated itself over 250,000 times in approximately nine hours on July 19, 2001 (11).
Just recently on Aug 4, 2003, the Windows operating system was struck with a new Internet worm, contaminating and crashing home and office computers sooner than technicians could install safeguards (12). Apart from the worm having the capability of crashing some systems and infecting others, it was otherwise considered to cause no real damage. “It’s certainly not a good thing,” Microsoft spokesman Sean Sundwall said. But, “it has not spread at the speed with which more notorious worms, such as Slammer and I Love You and Code Red, did.” (13) This worm, referred to as “Blaster”, was initially programmed to instruct an infected computer to attack the Microsoft security Website. The payload of the virus was a harmless message aimed at the Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates. The massage displayed “Billy Gates why do you make this possible? Stop making money and fix your software!!” (14)

Computer viruses are often confused with similar types of programs known as Trojan horses and logic bombs. A Trojan horse is a malicious security-breaking program that is disguised as something benevolent (15). For example, you download what seems to be a movie or music file, but when you click on it you unleash a dangerous program that erases your disk, or sends your credit card numbers and passwords to a stranger (16). Trojan horse attacks pose one of the most solemn threats to computer security and can often be used by criminals to commit fraud, misappropriation, damage and espionage. Trojan horse attacks are accomplished by the enclosure of iniquitous code into a typical innocuous program. Then when the user executes this program, they inadvertently execute the Trojan horse program.

The other type of computer pogram that is often confused with the computer virus is the Logic bomb. A logic bomb is a piece of code that is surreptitiously inserted into an application or operating system that causes it to perform some destructive or security-compromising activity whenever specified conditions are met – such as a particular time in a computer’s internal clock or a particular action, such as deletion of a program or file (17). For example, a logic bomb could be hidden inside the complex computer code for an applications program, such as a payroll package. The virus writer would create a program that in a way would asses the payroll records each day to ensure that the programmer responsible is still employed (18). If the programmers name is suddenly removed (by virtue of having been fired) the Logic Bomb will activate another piece of code to destroy vital files on the organization’s system (19).

Viruses can be composed for all platforms, including, Macintosh and UNIX (20). Approximations of the total number of computer viruses fluctuate considerably. The majority of detrimental computer viruses are produced for PCs, since the code necessities to successfully implement a PC program are less exacting than those of Macintosh. Software companies responded to the virus problem by developing a number of anti-viral programs (21). Since the preliminary virus programs were designed, a number of more comprehensive viral programs have been developed, requiring regular update of anti-viral software for best fortification.

Early viruses were pieces of code attached to a common program like a popular game or a popular word processor (22). For example, someone might download an infected game from a bulletin board and run it (23). A virus like this is a small piece of code entrenched in a larger, genuine program. If one of the corrupted programs is then handed to another person via a floppy disk, or if it is uploaded to a bulletin board, then other programs become infected. This is how the virus proliferates. As the multifaceted disposition of computer technology has evolved virus creators have became a lot more sophisticated and learnt many new tricks. One imperative trick was the aptitude to load viruses into memory so they could keep running in the background as long as the computer remained on (24). This gave viruses a much more effectual way to duplicate themselves. Another trick was the ability to contaminate the boot sector on floppy disks and hard disks (25). The boot sector is a small program that is the first part of the operating system that the computer loads (26). The boot sector contains a tiny program that tells the computer how to load the rest of the operating system (27). Therefore by appending the malicious code to the boot sector, the virus is irrefutably assured of being executed. Both boot sector viruses and executable viruses are still feasible, but they are a lot more problematical now and they don’t propagate nearly as quickly as they once could. The environment of floppy disks, small programs and ineffectual operating systems made these viruses possible in the 1980s, but that environmental niche has been largely eradicated by vast executables, unalterable CDs and enhanced operating system safeguards.

Many people may speculate about the social context and motivation in relation to why people write viruses. Writing a program that will assume a life of its own and spread, reproduce, and carry out the tasks you instruct it to do is a fascinating intellectual challenge. For computer technology to continue its development, our society needs imaginative, creative people to experiment with and explore the potential of the technology. Creating self-replicating programs is an important part of this development process, especially if we are to reap the full potential of computing to take on even more challenging tasks. Consequently, many viruses are created by responsible researchers or experimenters, and these sometimes escape accidentally into the general computing environment. Other viruses are created as pranks that misfire. Such a virus has the potential to do great harm if its program contains bugs that make it behave in a damaging way, especially if that virus spreads infection indiscriminately. Viruses have also provided a weapon for those members of society who wish to harm others for a variety of reasons. Some of these people are mischievous or destructive vandals, others have political points to make, and still others want to sabotage governments, organizations, or companies that they feel have done them wrong. Because the computing population has become so big, there now exists a significant number of vandals, sick minds, and people alienated from the mainstream who have the necessary skills to express their feelings by spreading viruses.

Computer viruses are a very real danger to the well-being of our society, and both the government and business community has belatedly acknowledged the realties of this epidemic. Viruses have cost corporations, government agencies, and educational institutions millions of dollars to prevent, detect, and recover from computer virus attacks. Some viruses have destroyed or disrupted computer systems and networks that provide vital communications and life support. Take the Love Letter as an example, in addition to this virus striking most federal agencies; the worm/virus also affected large companies, such as AT&T, TWA and Ford Motor Company (28). It hit many media outlets such as the Washington Post, Dow Jones and ABC News (29). It affected state governments, school systems, and credit unions, among many others, forcing them to take their network of line for many hours (30). Internationally the virus effected business, organizations, and governments, including the International Monetary Fund, the British Parliament, Belgium’s banking system, and many European companies (31). The bottom line in terms of damage is still indecisive. Initial estimates of damage from the initial outbreak range from 100 million dollars to over 10 billion dollars globally (32). So in conclusion it is vital that both individuals and organisations to whom computing is important adopt a comprehensive and coordinated policy to defend their systems against virus infection and acquire the capacity to take effective action should an infection occur.

To write a computer virus which involves the intent to cause damage through the creation and/or distribution of a destructive computer program is a serious crime and is dealt in general with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As evident, the legal consequences of computer viruses are not well clear. The laws pertaining to computer viruses change from state to state and from country to country (33). The writing of malicious viruses in many nations is not a misdemeanour in itself. In many other refined and computerised countries the partaking of malevolent virus code between anti-virus researchers could potentially be regarded as a felony. To make matters more intricate, once a virus is unconfined it is free to cross state lines and national borders, making the author or instigator of the virus responsible for his or her action under a very dissimilar legal system (34). However, much work towards producing pertinent legislative laws on computer viruses must be implemented, as in the past there have been certain legal dilemmas due to the lack of applicable legislation laws. An example of this was in August of 2000, where prosecutors were forced to dismiss all charges against Onel de Guzman, a past computer college student accused of having released the detrimental “I Love You” virus (35). The reason for the dismissal of the charges was the deficiency of appropriate legislation in the Philippine legal code. President Joseph Estrada immediately signed a law interdicting most computer-related crimes, but the law could not be applied retroactively to the “Love Bug” author (36).

The widespread dissemination of self-replicating, hostile programs is having very important influences on the whole future of computing. Some of these are already apparent; others are still speculative. As the computerized world persists to advance, it is absolutely imperative that our society is safeguarded from damaging and costly attacks to computer systems and networks. As technology is proceeding, programmers are recurrently creating virus shielding software with live updates and enhanced fortification for the most recent viruses. However, the virus protection softwares can not always offer 100 percent protection from all the dangerous and insecure material on the Internet. In conclusion, we can only be assiduous in our use of the World Wide Web and hope to turn clear from these perilous prevailing vulnerabilities.

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Research Paper on Computer Viruses
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May 20, 2009

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