Handling Unknown Binaries: A Quick How-To

You check your email and receive a suspicious file and your antiviral scanner didn’t throw any flags so you wonder, is it safe to open? There are some things you can do when you get a possible virus that not only helps you, but the entire security community as well.

1. Surf to http://www.virustotal.com and upload the possible virus. VirusTotal then scans the file using numerous antivirus programs to determine which ones detect the file as a virus and which do not.

Now if none of them detect it as a virus, this doesn’t necessarily mean its safe to open, but at least you’ll know for sure if VirusTotal does detect it. Another site that offers a similar service is http://virusscan.jotti.org

2. Review the binary with your favorite “strings” type program, which grabs any text out of a binary for you to view. You might use strings from Unix/Linux or BinText for Windows, or even some editors. Be very careful not to execute the file, but examine it for strings. Keep on the look out for things like registry keys that execute commands, networking calls, URLS, etc. This isn’t 100% effective, since some information could be encoded or encrypted inside the binary code. Note that you might also need to use an unpacker on the binary to do this. Try this before hand with known good tools and get some practice with both unpackers and strings-type utilities.

3. Lastly, if both of the previous steps show nothing, you might also consider setting up a test machine or a virtual VM image and run the possible virus in that test environment, but this is not recommended for the faint of heart or techinically unsavvy. For the average user, uploading it to VirusTotal and then deleting it would be enough. Tools like wireshark that capture incoming and outgoing packets would provide valuable insight in an investigation of this sort. Some malware is smart and won’t immediately begin sending data as soon as it starts, but will delay its actions to fool investigators into thinking it is benign, so be aware.

4. For those of you who are more advanced with code and development, or those looking to become more advanced, you could also investigate the use of a debugger or other reverse engineering tools. If so, it is beyond the scope of this article, but check around the Net – there are many articles dedicated to these tools and techniques.

These are merely basic steps and ideas. Each step requires skills and additional practice that new users or less advanced users may not have. When in doubt, simply delete. If the file was sent to you by someone you know personally, play it safe and call them.

So, try these at your own risk. Your mileage and paranoia may vary…

Internet Explorer Hokey Pokey

They put an exploit in, they put a patch out, they put an exploit in and users turn themselves about… You get the idea (sorry, I know it’s bad)…

IE users (and Microsoft) are having a particularly bad couple of weeks. First the VML issue became critical and widespread, with all the associated user confusion of the work-arounds and such. Microsoft then releases an out-of-cycle patch, only to be one-upped by attackers who almost immediately release a reworking of a formerly DoS attack into yet another remote code execution bug in IE.

As with VML, this new “old” bug is likely to be widespread and adopted into various bot and browser vulnerability frameworks. Basically, continuing to make it even more unsafe for users to browse the web at large than before…Blah, Blah, Blah… Just as before, repeat – because apparently “that’s what it’s all about”.


In the meantime, while we wait on patches for this latest IE exploit, do the usual. Try and educate users about safer browsing choices, reinforce the idea of enclave computing with your management team, harden your browsing environment as much as possible and make sure IDS/IPS signatures and AV/Spyware signatures are up to date.

Oh, and if you have time, learn the hokey pokey dance. It’s helpful at weddings and looks like it might be a good skill to have for the coming months!

“Retreat, hell! We’re just attacking in a different direction”

The CEO of my company (MicroSolved, Inc.) recently returned from a trip to Aruba, in which he was forced to endure the ban on liquids and gels on airlines. While patiently complying with the wishes of the TSA inspectors, he began to wonder if the additional inconvenience was worth the minimal decrease in security risk that the average airline customer would experience. Upon his return, he did a little research about the current rates of injury or death when performing everyday tasks, such as flying, driving, swimming in your backyard pool, and walking in the rain.

While the research revealed some very interesting facts regarding the risk involved with performing these everyday tasks, it prompted me to ask a different question. Our CEO was interested in knowing if the inconvenience was worth the reduction in risk. I asked whether the inconvenience was worth it at all. Did it even work?

I immediately began to think about how we got to the point we currently find ourselves, in regards to Anti-Terrorism and Information Security. Can we find a way to tie Anti-Terrorism measures and Information Security measures together to get an idea of whether the Anti-Terrorism measures can ever be effective?

When thinking of Information Security, the first thing that comes to mind is one despicable word: Signatures. Nearly every school of thought that has been bought into by security professionals involves the use of signatures to detect an attack. Your Anti-Virus relies on signatures to identify malware. Your Intrusion Detection/Protection devices rely on signatures to identify attacks. Your spware/adware detection devices rely on…you guessed it…signatures.

Signatures have proven to be quite effective…AFTER THE INITIAL ATTACK. The problem is that someone or something would have to have already seen the attack, in order to create an accurate signature. This holds true with today’s current Anti-Terrorism strategy. Think about just about every strategy that has been put into place to identify (or protect you from) a terrorist attack. We don’t implement bans on “liquids” until AFTER someone has already seen that particular method. We don’t restrict the use of metal silverware on a plane until AFTER someone has used a butter knife to hijack a plane.

There is a portion of the Information Security community (me included) who believe that we have already lost the war against malicious attackers. Of that portion of the community, several of us firmly believe that we are at a crossroads in what Information Security is now and will be in the future. A couple of us believe that it is now time to recognize that the good guys have lost the war and it is now time to pull back and focus our efforts on securing the critical data and leaving the users to their own devices.

There is a term floating around out there that speaks directly to this school of thought: Enclave Computing. Whereby, we would attempt to begin to identify the critical information that needs to be protected. Once we have identified the critical information, we move it to a secluded part of the network , or “enclave”, and wrap controls around it that dictate who and what has access to the information. We give the user base everything that we can give them for protection, but we don’t care about what happens to their boxes. We don’t care if they get compromised, because no critical information is stored on the machine. If one of their machines gets compromised, it becomes a turn-and-burn situation. That machine gets imaged and is back in operation in less than an hour. The information, being secluded from the compromised host, remains secure.

Now, I’m not condoning the thought that the government needs to consider leaving the citizenry to their own devices. I, a former US Marine, am absolutely certain that the War on Terrorism is something we can and will win, not to mention that we HAVE to win it. What I am afraid of is that we don’t know HOW to win. If we keep following the path of relying on signatures to protect our citizens and their information, as the War of Information Security has shown, we will lose.

As a country and an industry, we need to get back to our roots. We need to rely on that ingenuity that Americans so proudly brag about. We need to find pre-emptive solutions to defending our country and her information. I don’t know what the answer is to waging the War on Terrorism. I do know that MSI is using that “American Ingenuity” right now to create solutions to help us defend our information. What forward thinking organization will be the one to break new ground in providing a realistic method of waging the War on Terrorism?

One final, albeit scary, thought that remains just as true for National Security as it does for Information Security is something that the President has been quoted when saying that our enemies “only have to be right once; we have to be right 100 percent of the time”

VML Exploits Are Ugly and Pervasive

For several days we have been monitoring the explosion of the VML 0-day for Internet Explorer. It has become clear that this is a significant exploit.

Attackers began almost immediately to spread and improve the exploit once it was published. It was quickly included into several vulnerability and exploit tools. It took a suprisingly short amount of time for the incidents to begin to pop up around the Net.

The fact that Outlook is also vulnerable added to the fuel of the underground, as attackers with all kinds of motives began their assaults. They continue, even as I write this.

The exploit is ugly and dangerous. It has multiple attack vectors, including web and email, and attackers have refined the code until they now have the capability to do proper version checking and adapt the exploit to a variety of platforms.

Currently, some AV vendors have been less successful in defending against this problem than others. Many AV vendors are working hard to keep up with the ever changing set of binaries that the exploit examples download after the exploit runs. We all know this is admirable, but a losing battle. Truly resourceful attackers will grab code that is in no database, and even basic attackers will be able to modify existing tools to bypass the rudimentary checks many vendors are using.

In the meantime, the workaround is continuing to be used and refined as well. If you can get by without VML, unregister the DLL to protect yourself and your organization. Security teams should be making this decision quickly, as it may already be too late.

The last we heard, Microsoft is scheduled to release the official patch on Oct. 10. This means there is still plenty time for attackers to identify, target and exploit users around the world. The work around may be the best defense until the patch becomes available.

Stay tuned to your normal security intelligence sources for more information as it becomes available. Check out WatchDog if you are looking for such a source. It is available FREE from http://www.microsolved.com/watchdog

Some Truths of InfoSec…

In many of the conversations I have been having lately with InfoSec managers, some of them seem to have forgotten some of the basics of our relationship with attackers. They seem to have forgotten some of the basic tenents of security and they certainly don’t seem to be aware of Murphy’s Law.

So, let’s review a couple of items – just for refresher.

The first item is that attackers control the pace, not defenders. They are in control of when attacks occur, where they occur and how serious they are. Now we, as defenders, have some capabilities here to try and make sure we have minimized the impact of these incidents – but we have NO CONTROL over the timing, pace or location. Those items belong to the attacker.

Second, attackers will focus on your weaknesses, not your strengths. That is simply what smart attackers do. If you build all of your defenses and post your armies of cyber soldiers to brace for a full frontal assault, it is likely that a smart attacker will flank you. This is elementary in warfare, and it is a real and vital part of InfoSec too. You have to allow for defenses that embrace your assets and not just protect the obvious issues. You have to be ready for defending the subtle assets and locations too. Gone are the days, if they ever really existed, of attackers impaling themselves on your firewall and IDS/IPS in mass. Today, attackers are more subtle, more evasive and target things deeper in your territory. Things like users, client-side vulnerabilities and remote access points are juicy targets for today’s attacker.

As for Murphy, InfoSec managers need to remember, attackers will exploit timing issues without concern. They will leverage the fact that you are down a headcount, that your entire staff is at a week of training, that your budget does not have room for the sudden purchase of a security tool to combat a new threat. Attacks will come at the worst possible moment, so you might as well plan for them. Got a merger coming up, or an important period of business in the run for the end of the year? If so, it would be wise to ensure you preserve some resources for possible incidents and attacks. Murphy says they are just likely to happen when you need them least.

Again, I know these seem pretty basic, but they are truths of security and defense. They are universal, uncaring and painful if you have to learn them the hard way. So, build them into your plans and be ready to explain them to other management. The more you study them up front, the less they can harm you down the road.

RFID: Recipe For International Disaster?

RFID is the crest of an approaching wave of ubiquitous computing, a trend where small computing devices will be everywhere in your daily life. Manufacturers rushing to be first to market designed them to be cheap and to consume very little power. In the process, they sacrificed good security practices like strong encryption and proper privacy protection. Researchers at RSA and Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute are calling the RFID security protections “inadequate” and have demonstrated several ways to crack the devices. Another group at Vrije UniversiteitAmsterdam have created proof of concept viruses that would spread from one RFID tag to another effortlessly. How can something so high-tech be so fraught with security holes? RFID as implemented now in the lower-priced tags is a pandora’s box which has already been opened.

One of the more interesting uses of hacked RFID technology is when a man copied his hotel key’s RFID signature into the electronic price tag on a tub of cream cheese and opened his hotel door with the food container. Anyone with the right hardware and software could alter the price of every RFID tag in a warehouse or store to scramble them or swap them, due to poor encryption and other design flaws. As these devices grow in popularity, they will increasingly become a hot target for thieves and organized crime. RFID will soon be integrated into everyone’s passport which is sure to draw the attention of terror organizations in search of low-hanging fruit. These RFID tags aren’t just being used in experimental labs, no, they are in production in cars, hotels, toll lanes, and more. If a society is going to rely this heavily on a technology, shouldn’t it be secure?

Sacrificing security for cost in this case will cost the world more than the few cents they saved per chip. The short-sightedness of some RFID designers has set the stage for what could be one of the biggest disasters to hit ubiquitous computing. The problem is that the public knows nothing about the subtle nuances of what is needed for secure RFID, and manufacturers don’t feel any pressure to make their chips secure if their competitor doesn’t have to. Governmental standards should be enacted requiring strong encryption for these tags because the industry has failed to regulate itself in this regard. Consumers need to educate themselves about the power of and problems with RFID and how it can affect their own life. Ultimately, good security always comes back to user education.