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Are 'Good' Computer Viruses Still a Bad Idea?

Vesselin Bontchev
Proc. EICAR’94 Conf., pp. 25-47.
1994

17
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Research Associate
Virus Test Center
University of Hamburg
Vogt-Koelln-Str. 30, 22527 Hamburg, Germany

Introduction

During the past six years, computer viruses have caused unaccountable amount of damage - mostly due to loss of time and resources. For most users, the term "computer virus" is a synonym of the worst nightmares that can happen on their system. Yet some well-known researchers keep insisting that it is possible to use the replication mechanism of the viral programs for some useful and beneficial purposes.

This paper is an attempt to summarize why exactly the general public appreciates computer viruses as something inherently bad. It is also considering several of the proposed models of "beneficial" viruses and points out the problems in them. A set of conditions is listed, which every virus that claims to be beneficial must conform to. At last, a realistic model using replication techniques for beneficial purposes is proposed and directions are given in which this technique can be improved further.

The paper also demonstrates that the main reason for the conflict between those supporting the idea of a "beneficial virus" and those opposing it, is that the two sides are assuming a different definition of what a computer virus is.

1. What Is a Computer Virus?

The general public usually associates the term "computer virus" with a small, nasty program, which aims to destroy the information on their machines. As usual, the general public's understanding of the term is incorrect. There are many kinds of destructive or otherwise malicious computer programs and computer viruses are only one of them. Such programs include backdoors, logic bombs, trojan horses and so on [Bontchev94]. Furthermore, many computer viruses are not intentionally destructive - they simply display a message, play a tune, or even do nothing noticeable at all. The important thing, however, is that even those not intentionally destructive viruses are not harmless - they are causing a lot of damage in the sense of time, money and resources spent to remove them - because they are generally unwanted and the user wishes to get rid of them.

A much more precise and scientific definition of the term "computer virus" has been proposed by Dr. Fred Cohen in his paper [Cohen84]. This definition is mathematical - it defines the computer virus as a sequence of symbols on the tape of a Turing Machine. The definition is rather difficult to express exactly in a human language, but an approximate interpretation is that a computer virus is a "program that is able to infect other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved copy of itself".

Unfortunately, there are several problems with this definition. One of them is that it does not mention the possibility of a virus to infect a program without modifying it - by inserting itself in the execution path. Some typical examples are the boot sector viruses and the companion viruses [Bontchev94]. However, this is a flaw only of the human-language expression of the definition - the mathematical expression defines the terms "program" and "modify" in a way that clearly includes the kinds of viruses mentioned above.

A second problem with the above definition is its lack of recursiveness. That is, it does not specify that after infecting a program, a virus should be able to replicate further, using the infected program as a host.

Another, much more serious problem with Dr. Cohen's definition is that it is too broad to be useful for practical purposes. In fact, his definition classifies as "computer viruses" even such cases as a compiler which is compiling its own source, a file manager which is used to copy itself, and even the program DISKCOPY when it is on diskette containing the operating system - because it can be used to produce an exact copy of the programs on this diskette.

In order to understand the reason of the above problem, we should pay attention to the goal for which Dr. Cohen's definition has been developed. His goal has been to prove several interesting theorems about the computational aspects of computer viruses [Cohen89]. In order to do this, he had to develop a mathematical (formal) model of the computer virus. For this purpose, one needs a mathematical model of the computer. One of the most commonly used models is the Turing Machine (TM). Indeed, there are a few others (e.g., the Markoff chains, the Post Machine, etc.), but they are not as convenient as the TM and all of them are proven to be equivalent to it.

Unfortunately, in the environment of the TM model, we cannot speak about "programs" which modify "other programs" - simply because a TM has only one, single program - the contents of the tape of that TM. That's why Cohen's model of a computer virus considers the history of the states of the tape of the TM. If a sequence of symbols on this tape appears at a later moment somewhere else on the tape, then this sequence of symbols is said to be a computer virus for this particular TM. It is important to note that a computer virus should be always considered as related to some given computing environment - a particular TM. It can be proven [Cohen89] that for any particular TM there exists a sequences of symbols which is a virus for that particular TM.

Finally, the technical computer experts usually use definitions for the term "computer virus", which are less precise than Dr. Cohen's model, while in the same time being much more useful for practical reasons and still being much more correct than the general public's vague understanding of the term. One of the best such definitions is [Seborg]:

"We define a computer 'virus' as a self-replicating program that can 'infect' other programs by modifying them or their environment such that a call to an 'infected' program implies a call to a possibly evolved, and in most cases, functionally similar copy of the 'virus'."

The important thing to note is that a computer virus is a program that is able to replicate by itself. The definition does not specify explicitly that it is a malicious program. Also, a program that does not replicate is not a virus, regardless of whether it is malicious or not. Therefore the maliciousness is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient property for a program to be a computer virus.

Nevertheless, in the past ten years a huge number of intentionally or non intentionally destructive computer viruses have caused an unaccountable amount of damage - mostly due to loss of time, money, and resources to eradicate them - because in all cases they have been unwanted. Some damage has also been caused by a direct loss of valuable information due to an intentionally destructive payload of some viruses, but this loss is relatively minor when compared to the main one. Lastly, a third, indirect kind of damage is caused to the society - many users are forced to spend money on buying and time on installing and using several kinds of anti-virus protection.

Does all this mean that computer viruses can be only harmful? Intuitively, computer viruses are just a kind of technology. As with any other kind of technology, they are ethically neutral - they are neither "bad" nor "good" - it is the purposes that people use them for that can be "bad" or "good". So far they have been used mostly for bad purposes. It is therefore natural to ask the question whether it is possible to use this kind of technology for good purposes.

Indeed, several people have asked this question - with Dr. Cohen being one of the most active proponents of the idea [Cohen91]. Some less qualified people have attempted even to implement the idea, but have failed miserably (see section 3). It is natural to ask - why? Let's consider the reasons why the idea of a "good" virus is usually rejected by the general public. In order to do this, we shall consider why people think that a computer virus is always harmful and cannot be used for beneficial purposes.

2. Why Are Computer Viruses Perceived as Harmful?

About a year ago, we asked the participants of the electronic forum Virus-L/comp.virus, which is dedicated to discussions about computer viruses, to list all reasons they could think about why do they perceive the idea of a "beneficial" virus as a bad one. What follows is a systematized and generalized list of those reasons.

2.1. Technical Reasons

This section lists the arguments against the "beneficial virus" idea, which have a technical character. They are usually the most objective ones.

2.1.1. Lack of Control

Once released, the person who has released a computer virus has no control on how this virus will spread. It jumps from machine to machine, using the unpredictable patterns of software sharing among the users. Clearly, it can easily reach systems on which it is not wanted or on which it would be incompatible with the environment and would cause unintentional damage. It is not possible for the virus writer to predict on which systems the virus will run and therefore it is impossible to test the virus on all those systems for compatibility. Furthermore, during its spread, a computer virus could reach even a system that had not existed when that virus has been created - and therefore it had been impossible to test the virus for compatibility with this system.

The above is not always true - that is, it is possible to test the virus for compatibility on a reasonably large number of systems that are supposed to run it. However, it is the damaging potential of a program that is spreading out of control which is scaring the users.

2.1.2. Recognition Difficulty

Currently a lot of computer viruses already exist, which are either intentionally destructive or otherwise harmful. There are a lot of anti-virus programs designed to detect and stop them. All those harmful viruses are not going to disappear overnight. Therefore, if one develops a class of beneficial viruses and people actually begin to use them, then the anti-virus programs will have to be able to make the difference between the "good" and the "bad" viruses - in order to let the former in and keep the latter out.

Unfortunately, in general it is theoretically impossible even to distinguish between a virus and a non-viral program [Cohen89]. There is no reason to think that distinguishing between "good" and "bad" viruses will be much easier. While it might be possible to distinguish between them using virus-specific anti-virus software (e.g., scanners), we should not forget that many people are relying on generic anti-virus defenses, for instance based on integrity checking. Such systems are designed to detect modifications, not specific viruses, and therefore will be triggered by the "beneficial" virus too, thus causing an unwanted alert. Experience shows that the cost of such false positives is the same as of a real infection with a malicious virus - because the users waste a lot of time and resources looking for a non-existing problem.

2.1.3. Resource Wasting

A computer virus would eat up disk space, CPU time, and memory resources during its replication. A computer virus is a self-replicating resource eater. One typical example is the Internet Worm, accidentally released by a Carnegie-Mellon student. It was not designed to be intentionally destructive, but in the process of its replication, the multiple copies of it used so much resources, that they practically brought down a large portion of the Internet.

Even when the computer virus uses a limited amount of resources, it is considered as a bad thing by the owner of the machine on which the virus is doing it, if it happens without authorization.

2.1.4. Bug Containment

A computer virus can easily escape the controlled environment and this makes it very difficult to test such programs properly. And indeed - experience shows that almost all computer viruses released so far suffer from significant bugs, which would either prevent them from working in some environments, or even cause unintentional damage in those environments.

Of course, any program can (and usually does) contain bugs. This is especially true for the large and complex software systems. However, a computer virus is not just a normal buggy program. It is a self-spreading buggy program, which is out of control. Even if the author of the virus discovers the bug at a later time, there is the almost untreatable problem of revoking all existing copies of the virus and replacing them with fixed new versions.

2.1.5. Compatibility Problems

A computer virus that can attach itself to any of the user's programs would disable the several programs on the market that perform a checksum on themselves at runtime and refuse to run if modified. In a sense, the virus will perform a denial-of-service attack and thus cause damage.

Another problem arises from some attempts to solve the "lack of control" problem by creating a virus that asks for permission before infecting. Unfortunately, this causes an interruption of the task being currently executed until the user provides the proper response. Besides of being annoying for the user, it could be sometimes even dangerous. Consider the following example.

It is possible that a computer is used to control some kind of life-critical equipment in a hospital. Suppose that such a computer gets infected by a "beneficial" computer virus, which asks for permission before infecting any particular program. Then it is perfectly possible that a situation arises, when a particular program has to be executed for the first time after the virus has appeared on the computer, and that this program has to urgently perform some task which is critical for the life of a patient. If at that time the virus interrupts the process with the request for permission to infect this program, then the caused delay (especially if there is no operator around to authorize or deny the request) could easily result in the death of the patient.

2.1.6. Effectiveness

It is argued that any task that could be performed by a "beneficial" virus could also be performed by a non-replicating program. Since there are some risks following from the capability of self-replication, it would be therefore much better if a non-replicating program is used, instead of a computer virus.

2.2. Ethical and Legal Reasons

The following section lists the arguments against the "beneficial virus" idea, which are of ethical or legal kind. Since neither ethics, nor the legal systems are universal among the human society, it is likely that those arguments will have different strength in the different countries. Nevertheless, they have to be taken into account.

2.2.1. Unauthorized Data Modification

It is usually considered unethical to modify other people's data without their authorization. In many countries this is also illegal. Therefore, a virus which performs such actions will be considered unethical and/or illegal, regardless of any positive outcome it could bring to the infected machines. Sometimes this problem is perceived by the users as "the virus writer claims to know better than me what software should I run on my machine".

2.2.2. Copyright and Ownership Problems

In many cases, modifying a particular program could mean that copyright, ownership, or at least technical support rights for this program are voided.

We have witnessed such an example at the VTC-Hamburg. One of the users who called us for help with a computer virus was a sight-impaired lawyer, who was using special Windows software to display the documents he was working on with a large font on the screen - so that he could read them. His system was infected by a relatively non-damaging virus. However, when the producer of the software learned that the machine was infected, they refused any technical support to the user, until the infection was removed and their software - installed from clean originals.

2.2.3. Possible Misuse

An attacker could use a "good" virus as a means of transportation to penetrate a system. For instance, a person with malicious intent could get a copy of a "good" virus and modify it to include something malicious. Admittedly, an attacker could trojanize any program, but a "good" virus will provide the attacker with means to transport his malicious code to a virtually unlimited population of computer systems. The potential to be easily modified to carry malicious code is one of the things that makes a virus "bad".

2.2.4. Responsibility

Declaring some viruses as "good" and "beneficial" would just provide an excuse to the crowd of irresponsible virus writers to condone their activities and to claim that they are actually doing some kind of "research". In fact, this is already happening - the people mentioned above are often quoting Dr. Fred Cohen's ideas for beneficial viruses as an excuse of what they are doing - often without even bothering to understand what Dr. Cohen is talking about.

2.3. Psychological Reasons

The arguments listed in this section are of psychological kind. They are usually a result of some kind of misunderstanding and should be considered an obstacle that has to be "worked around".

2.3.1. Trust Problems

The users like to think that they have full control on what is happening in their machine. The computer is a very sophisticated device. Most computer users do not understand very well how it works and what is happening inside. The lack of knowledge and uncertainty creates fear. Only the feeling that the reactions of the machine will be always known, controlled, and predictable could help the users to overcome this fear.

However, a computer virus steals the control of the computer from the user. The virus activity ruins the trust that the user has in his/her machine, because it causes the user to lose his/her belief that s/he can control this machine. This may be a source of permanent frustrations.

2.3.2. Negative Common Meaning

For most people, the word "computer virus" is already loaded with negative meaning. The media has already widely established the belief that a computer virus is a synonym for a malicious program. In fact, many people call "viruses" many malicious programs that are unable to replicate - like trojan horses, or even bugs in perfectly legitimate software. People will never accept a program that is labelled as a computer virus, even if it claims to do something useful.

3. Some Bad Examples of "Beneficial" Viruses

Regardless of all the objections listed in the previous section, several people have asked themselves the question whether a computer virus could be used for something useful, instead of only for destructive purposes.

And several people have tried to positively answer this question. Some of them have even implemented their ideas in practice and have been experimenting with them in the real world - unfortunately, without success. In this section we shall present some of the unsuccessful attempts to create a beneficial virus so far, and explain why they have been unsuccessful.

3.1. The "Anti-Virus" Virus

Some computer viruses are designed to work not only in a "virgin" environment of infectable programs, but also on systems that include anti-virus software and even other computer viruses. In order to survive successfully in such environments, those viruses contain mechanisms to disable and/or remove the said anti-virus programs and "competitor" viruses. Examples for such viruses in the IBM PC environment are Den_Zuko (removes the Brain virus and replaces it with itself), Yankee_Doodle (the newer versions are able to locate the older ones and "upgrade" the infected files by removing the older version of the virus and replacing it with the newer one), Neuroquila (disables several anti-virus programs), and several other viruses.

Several people have had the idea to develop the above behaviour further and to create an "anti-virus" virus - a virus which would be able to locate other (presumably malicious) computer viruses and remove them. Such a self-replicating anti-virus program would have the benefits to spread very fast and update itself automatically.

Several viruses have been created as an implementation of the above idea. Some of them locate a few known viruses and remove them from the infected files, others attach themselves to the clean files and issue an error message if another piece of code becomes attached after the virus (assuming that it has to be an unwanted virus), and so on. However, all such pieces of "self-replicating anti-virus software" have been rejected by the users, who have considered the "anti-virus" viruses just as malicious and unwanted as any other real computer virus. In order to understand why, it is enough to realize that the "anti-virus viruses" matches several of the rules that state why a replicating program is considered malicious and/or unwanted. Here is a list of them for this particular idea.

First, this idea violates the Control condition. Once the "anti-virus" virus is released, its author has no means to control it.

Second, it violates the Recognition condition. A virus that attaches itself to executable files will definitely trigger the anti-virus programs based on monitoring or integrity checking. There is no way for those programs to decide whether they have been triggered by a "beneficial" virus or not.

Third, it violates the Resource Wasting condition. Adding an almost identical piece of code to every executable file on the system is definitely a waste - the same purpose can be achieved with a single copy of the code and a single file, containing the necessary data.

Fourth, it violates the Bug Containment condition. There is no easy way to locate and update or remove all instances of the virus.

Fifth, it causes several compatibility problems, especially to the selfchecking programs, thus violating the Compatibility condition.

Sixth, it is not as effective as a non-viral program, thus violating the Effectiveness condition. A virus-specific anti-virus program has to carry thousands of scan strings for the existing malicious viruses it would be very ineffective to attach a copy of it to every executable file. Even a generic anti-virus (i.e., based on monitoring or integrity checking) would be more effective if it exists only in one example and is executed under the control of the user.

Seventh, such a virus modifies other people's programs without their authorization, thus violating the Unauthorized Modification condition. In some cases such viruses ask the user for permission before "protecting" a file by infecting it. However, even in those cases they cause unwanted interruptions, which, as we already demonstrated, in some situations can be fatal.

Eight, by modifying other programs such viruses violate the Copyright condition.

Ninth, at least with the current implementations of "anti-virus" viruses, it is trivial to modify them to carry destructive code - thus violating the Misuse condition.

Tenth, such viruses are already widely being used as examples by the virus writers when they are trying to defend their irresponsible actions and to disguise them as legitimate research - thus the idea violates the responsibility condition too.

As we can see from the above, the idea of a beneficial anti-virus virus is "bad" according to almost any of the criteria listed by the users.

3.2. The "File Compressor" Virus

This is one of the oldest ideas for "beneficial" viruses. It is first mentioned in Dr. Cohen's original work [Cohen84]. The idea consists of creating a self-replicating program, which will compress the files it infects, before attaching itself to them. Such a program is particularly easy to implement as a shell script for Unix, but it is perfectly doable for the PC too. And it has already been done - there is a family of MS-DOS viruses, called Cruncher, which appends itself to the executable files, then compresses the infected file using Lempel-Zev-Huffman compression, and then prepends a small decompressor which would decompress the file in memory at runtime.

Regardless of the supposed benefits, this idea also fails the test of the criteria listed in the previous section. Here is why.

First, the idea violates the Control condition. Once released, the author of the virus has no means to controls its spread. In the particular implementation of Cruncher, the virus writer has attempted to introduce some kind of control. The virus asks the user for permission before installing itself in memory, causing unwanted interruptions. It is also possible to tell the virus to install itself without asking any questions - by the means of setting an environment variable. However, there are no means to tell the virus not to install itself and not to ask any questions - which should be the default action.

Second, the idea violates the Recognition condition. Several virus scanners detect and recognize Cruncher by name, the process of infecting an executable triggers most monitoring programs, and the infected files are, of course, modified, which triggers most integrity checkers.

Third, the idea violates the Resource condition. A copy of the decompressor is present in every infected file, which is obviously unnecessary.

Fourth, the idea violates the Bug Containment condition. If bugs are found in the virus, the author has no simple means to distribute the fix and to upgrade all existing copies of the virus.

Fifth, the idea violates the Compatibility condition. There are many files which stop working after being compressed. Examples include programs that perform a self-check at runtime, self-modifying programs, programs with internal overlay structure, Windows executables, and so on. Admitedly, those programs stop working even after being compressed with a stand-alone (i.e., non-viral) compression program. However, it is much more difficult to compress them by accident when using such a program - quite unlike the case when the user is running a compression virus.

Sixth, the idea violates the Effectiveness condition. It is perfectly possible to use a stand-alone, non-viral program to compress the executable files and prepend a short decompressor to them. This has the added advantage that the code for the compressor does not have to reside in every compressed file, and thus we don't have to worry about its size or speed - because it has to be executed only once. True, the decompressor code still has to be present in each compressed file and many programs will still refuse to work after being compressed. The solution is to use not compression at a file level, but at a disk level. And indeed, compressed file systems are available for many operating environments (DOS, Novell, OS/2, Unix) and they are much more effective than a file-level compressor that spreads like a virus.

Seventh, the idea still violates the Copyright condition. It could be argued that it doesn't violate the Data Modification condition, because the user is asked to authorize the infection. We shall accept this, with the remark mentioned above - that it still causes unwanted interruptions. It is also not very trivial to modify the virus in order to make it malicious, so we'll assume that the Misuse condition is not violated too - although no serious attempts are made to ensure that the integrity of the virus has not been compromised.

Eighth, the idea violates the responsibility condition. This particular virus - Cruncher - has been written by the same person who has released many other viruses - far from "beneficial" ones - and Cruncher is clearly used as an attempt to condone virus writing and to masquerade it as legitimate "research".

3.3. The "Disk Encryptor" Virus

This virus has been published by Mark Ludwig - author of two books and a newsletter on virus writing, and of several real viruses, variants of many of which are spreading in the real world, causing real damage.

The idea is to write a boot sector virus, which encrypts the disks it infects with a strong encryption algorithm (IDEA in this particular case) and a user-supplied password, thus ensuring the privacy of the user's data. Unfortunately, this idea is just as flawed as the previous ones.

First, it violates the Control condition. True, the virus author has attempted to introduce some means of control. The virus is supposed to ask the user for permission before installing itself in memory and before infecting a disk. However, this still causes unwanted interruptions and reportedly in some cases doesn't work properly - that is, the virus installs itself even if the user has told it not to.

Second, it violates the Recognition condition. Several virus-specific scanners recognize this virus either by name or as a variant of Stealth_Boot, which it actually is. Due to the fact that it is a boot sector infector, it is unlikely to trigger the monitoring programs. However, the modification that it causes to the hard disk when infecting it, will trigger most integrity checkers. Those that have the capability to automatically restore the boot sector, thus removing any possibly present virus, will cause the encrypted disk to become inaccessible and therefore cause serious damage.

Third, the idea violates the Compatibility condition. A boot sector virus that is permanently resident in memory usually causes problems to Windows when the latter is configured in 32BitDiskAccess mode. Also, the permanent swap file of Windows must not be put on an encrypted (or compressed, or otherwise accessible via a device driver) volume, because during its access Windows controls the hard disk directly, via the ports, thus bypassing any memory resident program used to access the disk and almost certainly causing damage. This problem is usually solved by putting the permanent swap file on an unencrypted (or uncompressed) partition, but the virus in question encrypts the whole disk. Lastly, the way the virus installs itself on the hard disk (overwriting a few sectors on track zero) would damage some (admitedly obsolete) DOS configurations which include this track in the first partition.

Fourth, the idea violates the Effectiveness condition. It is perfectly possible to achieve exactly the same goal (i.e., hard disk encryption) with a stand-alone (i.e., non-viral) program. Actually, several such programs already exist. Many of them are available in source - something which is critical for any encryption software, because it allows the users to check for themselves the security of the implementation (for instance, that it doesn't contain any backdoors or security holes). Most of them are also much faster than this particular virus. The disk infection is very slow (because the virus encrypts the disk at infection time) and the only practical way to use the virus is to turn the so-called "auto-migration" (i.e., infection on disk access) feature off - thus proving that the only practical way to use this program is without its viral capabilities. Lastly, the stand-alone disk encryption programs usually come with the necessary documentation. Only the original copy of the virus (i.e., the Germ) contains the documentation for it; any copy acquired by infection does not carry it. And the documentation is quite vital for the proper usage of this particular program, as the author himself admits there.

Fifth, the idea violates the responsibility condition - the virus has been used multiple times by its author and by other virus writers as an argument to claim that their actions are legitimate. As demonstrated above, the only thing that differentiates this particular virus from a useful disk encryption program is its viral capabilities and it is exactly those viral capabilities that make the product unsuitable for practical use. Once they are turned off, the product is usable, thus proving that the viral capabilities are completely unnecessary.

Sixth, the idea violates Negative Common Meaning condition and causes several trust problems. Even the proponents of the idea for "beneficial" virus writing who are often uploading this virus to the BBSes are never using it themselves, "because it is a virus".

We are ready to accept that this virus does not contradict the Resource Wasting condition (because only one copy of it is present per infected disk and the system slowdown during normal operation - except replication - is comparable to those of other disk encryption programs); that it doesn't contradict the Unauthorized Modification condition (because a user confirmation is required - although this doesn't seem to always work); that it doesn't contradict the Copyright condition (because no user programs are modified by it) and even that it doesn't contradict the Possible Misuse condition - although the virus does not take any steps to ensure its own integrity and a relatively knowledgeable hacker could implement some kind of malicious routine in it. However, the other conditions that it violates clearly demonstrate that this program cannot be classified as a beneficial virus.

3.4. The "Maintenance" Virus

This virus was first described by Dr. Fred Cohen in [Cohen91]. The idea consists of a self-contained program, which spawns copies of itself across the different machines in a network (thus acting more like a worm) and performing some maintenance tasks on those machines - like deleting temporary files and so on. A similar idea can be implemented in memory as multiple concurrent processes, instead of programs in files spreading across the network.

In his description, Dr. Cohen has introduced several techniques that make the virus conform to some of the conditions listed in the previous section. Unfortunately, it still fails to conform to all of them and therefore is yet another failed attempt to create a beneficial virus.

In order to solve the Control problem, each maintenance virus contains a check for a special file to be present on the machine. This file is supposed to be created by the user who wants to use the virus on their machine and is some form of an invitation. However, no steps are taken to authenticate this file by some mathematical (e.g., cryptographical) means - only its name is used as sufficient indication that the virus is wanted on this particular machine. Also, each virus maintains some kind of statistic about how effective it is (i.e., how much work it has done) and a built-in mechanism that automatically kills the offsprings that are not effective enough. This is supposed to have the effect of limiting the growth of the number of viruses on the network to some useful limits.

Because of the way it spreads (as a self-contained executable program, without modifying other programs), the virus is less likely to trigger any anti-virus defenses already in place - especially having in mind that the invitation is supposed to be created by the system administrator, who should know how to configure the possibly present integrity checkers in a way that they are not triggered by the appearance of new executable files (although this would weaken them and make the system more vulnerable to real viruses).

The Bug Containment condition is also satisfied to some extent. Since the virus spreads in a relatively limited network, and since the different instances of it are self-contained, it is relatively easy to use that same network to automatically distribute updates of the virus. It would be also easy to shut down all active copies by simply removing the "invitation" file from the machines connected to the net.

The possible Compatibility problems are solved by putting the burden of inviting the virus on the system administrators - it is supposed that before installing the invitation, they should have checked whether the virus would cause any compatibility problems on their machines.

Since the virus doesn't modify other programs and removes only temporary files that the system administrator would have removed anyway, this neatly solves the Copyright and the Unauthorized Modification problems too.

Unfortunately, there are still some unsolved problems. The most important objection is that the virus violates the Resource Wasting and Effectiveness conditions. It performs tasks which are normally performed by stand-alone regularly scheduled programs at each machine. Since the task performed by the virus (deletion of temporary files) has to be done anyway, using a virus does not gain any effectiveness. It only distributes the task among the different machines on the network - so it would be faster than if performed by a single machine across the network. However, such tasks are normally already performed locally, by each machine on the network, so they are already distributed. Using a virus to achieve the same goal only adds unnecessary load for copying, executing, and deleting the different copies of the virus, without any particular gain. It also introduces some serious security risks, so it is obviously not worth it to be used.

Second, the viruses that Dr. Cohen describes do not take any sensible precautions to authenticate themselves to the systems they infect. They are implemented as shell scripts and it would be trivial for a malicious attacker to modify them, remove the safety check, and/or include some malicious routines.

At last, many system administrators would refuse to use them just because they are viruses (the Negative Common Meaning problem). Indeed, Dr. Cohen attempts to solve this problem by calling them LPs (Live Programs, [Cohen94], but it is too obvious that they replicate worm-like, so a name change does not really change anything.

4. How to Construct a Beneficial Virus?

All the unsuccessful attempts to create a beneficial virus that were listed above suffer from one and the same flaw in their design. Their authors (maybe with the only exception of Dr. Cohen) are taking a real virus (which is definitely not beneficial or even not harmless), and attempt to make it beneficial by adding some useful capabilities to it. Of course, this approach must fail. A better approach is to design a beneficial program that does not violate any criteria for non-maliciousness and only then try to see whether the program could be made even more useful by adding self-replicating capabilities to it, without violating the criteria mentioned above.

We shall not discuss here whether the reasons listed in section 2 are good, appropriate, or necessary. All of them have been expressed in one way or another by computer users we have discussed this problem with, so we shall assume that all of them are considered important by the users. Therefore, in order to be perceived as a "beneficial virus", a self-replicating program must not contradict any of those conditions. Let's see whether the problems could be solved and if yes how.

4.1. Solving the Technical Problems

As it turns out, the technical problems are the easiest ones to solve and, while requiring significant work and research, it is perfectly possible to solve them.

4.1.1. Solving the Control Problem

The easiest way to solve the Control problem is not to allow the virus to spread out of control in the first place. A first step is to make it ask for permission before infecting, but, as we saw, this could cause unwanted interruptions. A better solution is for the virus to check whether some form of invitation is already installed on the machine, and infect it only if the invitation is present. Unfortunately, in an environment of a large network (e.g., the Internet) and a lot of different beneficial viruses available, the constant polling for invitations performed by those viruses could cause a serious network overload. Therefore, we should go even further instead of passively installing the permission/invitation and waiting for the virus to infect, a user who wants to use a particular computer virus must actively send the invitation.

In an environment such as the Internet with mostly Unix-based machines using TCP/IP for communication, this could be implemented by a set of interconnected repositories of beneficial viruses, to which the user's machine connects or sends an invitation message. This could be implemented much in the same way as e-mail and ftp is implemented nowadays - only the security requirements have to be significantly more strident, due to the potential security problem created by self-replicating code.

In particular, in order to prevent the danger of message forgeries, of malicious programs impersonating beneficial viruses, to implement some form of accounting, and to prevent mistakes, a beneficial virus must be able to authenticate itself to the system it wants to infect. Furthermore, the system must authenticate itself to the virus. The natural way to implement this is by using some form of public-key cryptography.

Imagine the following scenario. A company that specializes in the production of beneficial viruses creates one and makes it available at some well-known virus repository site. The file distribution software of that site (possibly also virus-based) automatically distributes the new virus to all the other virus repositories that do not have it yet. The company also makes a formal announcement, containing the public key of the virus, in another standard place - say, a dedicated newsgroup. The announcement itself is signed with the public key of the company-producer.

The system administrator of a site that wants to use the virus (i.e., considers the task that the virus performs useful) sees the announcement, checks the digital signature to make sure that it indeed comes from the company it claims to come from, and posts a formal invitation. The invitation specifies which particular virus is needed, which site wants it, the way for the virus to enter the system (e.g., a dedicated port) and some other similar useful information. Of course, this invitation is also signed with the public key of the owner of the machine that wants to be infected. This invitation message does not have to be sent directly to the company-producer or even to the virus repository. Instead, it could be posted to some public place (e.g., another newsgroup). The virus repositories around the world will watch this newsgroup for such messages, and those of them that is nearest to the requesting site will send the virus to that site (in order to minimize the traffic costs).

The virus will contact the site that is requesting it through the specified entry point and will authenticate itself to the system with the means of a public-key digital signature created with the private key of the virus. At this point the system that has requested the virus will be able to prove that what it has received is indeed the viral program that has been requested. This will exclude not only the danger of an intruder masquerading as a beneficial virus - it will also detect random corruptions that might have taken place. It won't completely exclude the danger of malicious code, but in case that malicious code is found, the user will have a proof that it comes from the company that has provided the virus. The chances of this actually happening are no bigger than those of Microsoft distributing a trojan horse with their word processor.

Once the virus has installed itself at the requesting site, it could (optionally, with the agreement of the local system administrator) use that site for further distribution - for instance, watch the same newsgroup for requests for the same virus coming from nearby sites.

Lastly, all messages that do not have to be public (e.g., virus invitations, service messages, etc.) could be encrypted with the public key of the virus, for privacy reasons.

It is important to note that in the above scenario the default action for the virus is not to infect. Only if a verified, active invitation is present, it is allowed to install itself on a particular system.

4.1.2. Solving the Recognition Problem

The anti-virus programs are either virus-specific (i.e., they look for particular code known to be present in viruses), or generic (i.e., they watch for modifications of the existing executable programs). A beneficial virus using the cryptographically strong authentication methods mentioned above could easily be made not to trigger the virus-specific anti-virus programs. In fact, it will be able to authenticate itself to them as a known beneficial virus and ensure that no false positives occur - therefore, it will be safer than a normal executable program.

In order to avoid triggering the modification detectors, the virus must not modify other executable programs. This requirement is also necessary to solve other problems, as we shall see below. Therefore, a beneficial virus must be a worm - it must be self-contained and spread as a whole and not depend on attaching itself to a host executable file [Cohen92].

4.1.3. Solving the Resource Wasting Problem

In order to solve this problem, a beneficial virus must consume a negligible amount of time, memory, disk space, and other system resources. At least the cost of the system resources used by the virus must be negligible, when compared with the benefit it brings to the user. This again supports the argument that only a single instance of the virus must be present on an infected machine.

4.1.4. Solving the Bug Containment Problem.

Updates for a virus that uses public-key cryptography for authentication means should be distributed in a similarly secure way - the new version should use digital signatures in order to make sure that it is updating the right file at the right site. If the global network is used both for virus distribution and virus update, and the viruses do not spread by any other means, this will ensure that important messages (like "update" or "terminate yourself") are quickly and reliably passed to all instances of the virus.

Additionally, it should be easy for the system administrator of any particular site to send a "terminate yourself" message to any particular virus running at this site. This still has the danger of a denial-of-service attack - if some site is heavily dependent on the operation of some beneficial virus, then an attacker could send a message to this virus to stop working, therefore causing damage. Again, the right way to solve this problem is by means of public-key cryptography - the messages to the virus should be signed with the private key of the system it runs on.

4.1.5. Solving the Compatibility Problems

By making the virus self-contained and not modifying any other programs, we ensure that it does not cause any problems to programs that do not tolerate modification. Since the virus does not even bother the user with requests for permission to infect (it passively waits for an active invitation from the part of the user instead), it will not cause unwanted interruptions. Lastly, the user who is requesting the virus will be able to examine in advance the technical specifications of the latter and decide whether it is suitable for the user's system. Of course, the risk of introducing an incompatible program still exists, but it is not greater than the risk of introducing any normal (i.e., non-viral) program - except that a beneficial virus comes with a cryptographic proof of its integrity.

4.1.6. Solving the Effectiveness Problem

In order to make computer virus based solutions attractive to the users, we have to design them for tasks that are more effectively performed by self-replicating code than by normal, non-viral programs. There are not many tasks of this kind, but they do exist, as we shall see from some examples below.

4.2. Solving the Ethical and the Legal Problems

The problems of this kind are traditionally more difficult to solve than the technical ones. However, as we shall see, the model for virus distribution described above helps greatly to solve those problems too.

4.2.1. Solving the Unauthorized Data Modification Problem

Since the unauthorized modification of other people's data is considered harmful, a virus that claims to be beneficial must not do any such thing. The scheme described above neatly fits into these limits - the virus waits for the user to actively invite it to the system, and uses cryptographic means to make sure that it infects, updates, or modifies the right thing.

4.2.2. Solving the Copyright and Ownership Problems

Those problems are easily solved by requiring the virus to be a self-contained program (i.e., a worm) and not to infect or otherwise modify any programs it is not explicitely authorized to. Even then, the virus has to use cryptographic authentication, in order to exclude the possibility for misrecognition errors.

4.2.3. Solving the Possible Misuse Problem

Since the virus described in the model above uses cryptographically strong techniques to authenticate itself to the system it wants to infect, and since the system authenticates itself to the virus too, this excludes the possibility of a malicous attacker to modify a beneficial virus and make it include some damaging code. Actually, it also excludes the possibility for a system to "cheat" by using a beneficial viral program without accounting for it. This could raise some privacy problems, but, as demonstrated by [Chaum], the means of public-key cryptography are able to provide simultaneously both authentication and anonymity, if so desired.

An attacker could, of course, examine the source of some beneficial virus and in particular its replication mechanism, and try to use this mechanism for a malicious program of his. However, since the virus described above does not penetrate the systems but waits for an active invitation instead, the attacker will have to convince the users that his program is beneficial. However, this case is not much different from an attacker uploading a Trojan Horse to a popular anonymous ftp site or a BBS, claiming that it does something useful. The technique for distribution of beneficial viruses described above has this additional benefit, that by using public key authentication it allows the malicious program to be provably traced to the attacker.

Of course, all this assumes that a reliable scheme for secure public key distribution is in place and that programs implementing public key authentication methods are already in wide use. Currently this is not the case, so the described scheme for secure distribution of beneficial viruses is not immediately realizable. However, there are active developments in this area, so it should be very real in the near future.

4.2.4. Solving the Responsibility Problem

This is one of the most difficult problems to solve. Regardless of how much efforts are put by the legitimate researchers to implement a beneficial virus in a secure way, the malicious virus writers will always try to use their achievements as an excuse and attempt to masquerade the malicious virus writing as legitimate "research".

There is really no easy solution to this problem. It should be approached by a complex of measures. The legitimate proponents of research into the area of beneficial self-replicating programs must always stress the responsibility that any developer of such programs should have to prevent the uncontrolled spread of his or her creations. They must always condemn the malicious virus writing and the release to the general public of real viruses that do not provide the necessary means to control their spread. Since the implementation of the proper authentication protocols is usually beyond the capabilities of the teenagers who enjoy creating and releasing malicious virus code, this should easily differentiate between the legitimate researchers and the "wannabes". It must be always stressed that the author of a virus bears part of the responsibility when this virus is found on a system where it is unwanted and that the person who has introduced virus into that particular system is not the only one responsible for the damage caused.

Simultaneously, this should be combined with the proper legislative measures against malicious virus writing and distribution. This, if properly enforced, should serve as a deterrent against at least some of the people who would otherwise spend their time creating malicious viral code - if they have no penalties to fear.

4.3. Solving the Psychological problems

Those problems are not easy to solve, but some improvements could be made, using psychologically-oriented solutions.

4.3.1. Solving the Trust Problems

The contemporary computing environments are so sophisticated, that probably none of their users understands completely how exactly they work. Therefore, the feeling to have a full control over them is, more or less, an illusion. Nevertheless, it is an important illusion, because it helps maintaining the internal comfort of the users and helps them circumvent the instinctive fear from a system that they do not understand.

Therefore, the distribution and the replication of a beneficial computer virus should be implemented in a way that preserves this illusion. The proposed cryptographic means for authentication help a lot in this aspect. It should be easily possible for the user to obtain complete accounting of the spread of the virus and of the actions that the latter has performed on the user's system. The ability to easily deactivate the virus (by removing the invitation) should also help in this aspect.

4.3.2. Solving the Negative Common Meaning Problem

The media seems to have already created a widely established public opinion that computer viruses are something inherently bad. In fact, many users suspect a virus whenever any computer problem occurs - even ones that are obviously hardware-related.

Past experience with the term "hacker" demonstrates that no amount of public education is going to change the opinion of the general public on this matter. The general public does not read the specialized scientific papers and newsgroups where such explanations of the correct meaning of the term are provided. The general public gets its information mostly from the media - and the media describes computer viruses are something that is necessarily bad. This will inevitably cause most people to oppose to any kind of software that calls itself a computer virus - even if it claims to be beneficial and even if it demonstrates that it is so.

Therefore, a beneficial self-replicating program must not be called a virus, if it wants to have any hopes to achieve recognition by the general public. As it turns out, this is not so difficult. As we shall see in the next section, most useful self-replicating programs that satisfy all conditions for non-maliciousness are far from what most people consider a real computer virus.

4.4. Summary

As we could see from the above sections, all conditions for non-maliciousness in self-replicating programs can be easily satisfied by creating a program that:

5. Some Good Examples of Beneficial Self-Replicating Programs

In this section we shall present several more or less successful applications of self-replicating code. They all fit into Dr. Cohen's definition of the term "computer virus", although most of them wouldn't be considered viruses by most people.

5.1. The Automatic OS Update

In the early days of personal computers, the operating systems were small and it was common to put a copy of the OS on every formatted floppy. It usually occupied the first 2-3 tracks. The idea was proposed to introduce a small modification in the OS and to make it check on every floppy disk access whether that floppy contains an up-to-date version of that particular OS. In the case that an older version was found, it would be replaced with the newer version. This automatic update could be easily controlled by the user. For instance, the user could set the default behaviour to be the update to always occur automatically, to never occur, or the user to be asked interactively each time for confirmation. No cryptographic authentication means were used, but it was assumed that the producer of the operating system will know their product well enough to be able to reliably recognize old versions of it.

This idea still violates some of the conditions listed in section 2, which is probably why it never received wide acceptance. Besides, the size of operating systems has increased enormously. Nowadays, they occupy multiple high-density floppies and consist of hundreds of files containing different utilities. It is no longer practical to keep a copy of the OS on each floppy disk.

5.2. The Xerox PARC Worm

In 1982, two researchers from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center created a "distributed computation" [Shoch]. This was a program written in BCPL for Xerox workstations, which consisted of several segments, each segment running on a workstation connected to a local-area network. The program was able to determine which machines are idle and to transfer a segment to them, thus expanding itself. Additionally, each segment could use the workstation it was running on for some useful task. In particular, during the experiments mentioned above, the segments were performing partial computations for animation purposes, using the idle machines on the network.

Unfortunately, the self-replicating programs used during those experiments didn't have the necessary mechanisms to verify their own integrity during the replication process. Random corruptions could easily occur, and it was discovered that the worms left running overnight often got out of control and corrupted copies crashed the machines in the entire network. This behaviour forced the two researchers to stop the experiments.

5.3. The Centralized Anti-Virus Update

This last example of beneficial self-replicating is the most successful one. Implementations of it are widely used by several anti-virus companies in their products.

Consider a company that has several hundreds, even thousands of PCs, all networked together in a LAN. The company also takes the virus problem seriously, and insists that each and every of those PCs must be running the latest version of some particular virus scanner, before it is allowed to access the network. Let's ignore for a moment whether the decision to rely on a scanner for virus protection is wise or not. Even if the company uses some other kinds of defense (integrity checking, monitoring, access control, and so on), a well thought out scheme for anti-virus defense should contain a scanner as one of the lines of protection, although possibly not the most important one.

Insisting that all PCs are running the latest version of the scanner is a very reasonable requirement, because scanners tend to get old faster than normal programs, and a new virus could sneak in undetected by an obsolete scanner and wreak havoc on the network, before any other kind of defense has had the opportunity to react.

So, the person responsible for the network has imposed a requirement: a PC that does not run the latest version of the scanner is not allowed to log in. That's fine, but how to achieve it? The simple answer is - by keeping a copy of the (presumably resident) scanner on each of the PCs and regularly updating them.

The only problem is - how to keep thousands of PCs up-to-date? And on the top of that - to keep them up-to-date with a product, a new version of which is released on average every month? Trying to achieve this by going to each PC and updating it manually from a floppy is a hopeless task. A month will not be sufficient to update them all - before you have finished, you'll have to start all over again - updating them with the next version of the scanner. The PCs will be probably in different buildings, some of them - in obscure places, used rarely - all this will definitely not make the task easier. In fact, it is a real nightmare for the PC technical support team.

The obvious alternative is to keep one copy of the anti-virus package on the server and update the PCs from there. However, if the person responsible for maintaining the virus protection has to go personally to each computer and download the new version of the package manually from the server, the situation has not improved very much. One option is to tell the users to do it themselves regularly, and even set up some sort of automatic system that sends them automatic reminders each time the copy of the software on the server has been updated. Unfortunately, this still leaves two problems. First, the users tend to be lazy and "automatically" ignore the automatic reminders. Second, they - or at least some of them - lack the necessary qualification for installing anti-virus packages, and could easily mess up something while installing the update.

A much, much better solution is to design the anti-virus package as a network virus (a worm, actually), making it able to copy itself across the network to the workstations. One segment of the worm will constantly monitor the logins. Each time a workstations attempts to login, that segment automatically queries that workstation whether it is running the anti-virus product and which version of it. If it turns out that a newer version is available, the segment will inform the user about this and will propose to update the local version on the workstation. If the user refuses the update, then access to the network is denied for that workstation. If the user accepts the update, another segment of the worm will fetch the relevant (updated) parts of the anti-virus package from the server, will copy them to the workstation, and will reboot the latter, in order to make sure that the changes will take effect. Of course, the user is always kept informed about what is going to happen, and user permission is requested each time.

The software that performs the automatic update, is actually part of the anti-virus package. Since it copies (parts of) itself across the network to other computers, it is a virus, according to Dr. Cohen's definition of the term - although probably most people will not see it as such. Such a virus is very easy to implement - even by using trivial modifications to the login scripts. It could be used for the initial installation of the anti-virus package too - not only for the updates. If the network consists of more than one server, then the whole virus - the anti-virus programs, together with the code that implements the replication - could transfer themselves from server to server and begin to distribute the updates from there.

Does the beneficial "virus" described above conform to all conditions listed in section 2? It seems so.

It does conform to the Control requirement. The virus attempts to spread only on the computers attempting to access the network on which it is running. This is perfectly acceptable, because, as we stated, the company's policy is that all computers attempting to access the network must run the latest version of the anti-virus product. Simultaneously, the user is always given the option to refuse the programs that insist to run on the user's computer - but then access to the network is denied for that computer.

It does conform to the Recognition requirement. Since the "virus" is actually part of the anti-virus defense, it will be easy for it to recognize itself and allow itself to run. Currently, the products implementing this approach do not use cryptographic means for authentication - they rely on file names, directory paths, and so on. However, it is very easy to add any additional authentication as the need for it arises.

It does conform to the Resource Wasting requirement. Since the virus is of the worm type and therefore self-contained, only a single copy of it will be running on each workstation - therefore, no resource wasting will occur. In fact, the unnecessary parts of it (e.g., the replication code) will not be copied, if they are not needed.

The fact that it is a worm and spreads as a whole on the network makes it relatively easy to fulfil the Bug Containment requirement too. If a bug is discovered in any piece of the software, the same viral replication means can be easily used to distribute the fix to each workstation as it logs in.

Since the "virus" modifies only old copies of itself and does not touch other programs, no compatibility problems due to its virus-like behaviour will occur. Of course, it is still possible that the anti-virus software running on the workstation is having compatibility problems with any of the hardware or software components of this workstation. However, those problems are independent on the viral way for distribution of the package and can be usually solved by contacting the company that provides technical support for the package. If a fix in the anti-virus software is necessary, in order to solve the problems, then the viral distribution mechanism can be used to send it to the workstation that needs it.

The kind of job that such a "virus" performs, clearly demonstrates that it fulfils the requirement for Effectiveness too. Actually, any other way to regularly distribute updates of the package to a large number of PCs would be horribly ineffective.

Since the package updates/modifies only older copies of itself, there are no legal and/or ethical problems related to unauthorized data modification or copyright - therefore, the package described above fulfils those requirements too. Since the company that installs the "virus" owns the network on which it runs, it has the right to decide what is the exact policy to allow machines to connect to that network. Therefore, if the policy is "either run the latest version of the anti-virus software or be denied access", it is their right to enforce it. The user has always the option to refuse and not to use the network.

The way currently such packages are implemented makes their misuse by an attacker relatively difficult, but still possible. However, as mentioned above, as the need arizes, cryptographically strong means for authentication could be easily introduced to take care of this problem.

The responsibility requirement is fulfilled too - in fact, the whole "viral" package is designed mainly as a means to fight real, malicious viruses.

At last, the psychological problems are easily resolved by using the fact that most people would consider such a package as a real computer virus in the first place. The companies using this approach usually call it "centralized software update" or some other nicely-looking name - a name that doesn't even remotely suggest that the package is a virus.

Actually, this approach could be used for any kind of software - not just for distribution of anti-virus packages. However, the need to update the anti-virus packages often allows us to demonstrate the best how useful and beneficial the approach is. Similar tools for general software distribution exist too - for instance, the program rdist, used on many Unix machines. However, it acts like a virus only when distributing new versions of itself, which doesn't happen that often.

6. Conclusion

In this paper we listed the set of reasons why computer viruses are usually considered bad and emphasized that any self-replicating program that claims to be beneficial and non-malicious must not contradict the conditions expressed by those reasons. We also demonstrated that it is possible to design such programs, although most people probably wouldn't consider them to be viruses.

7. References

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