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Antivirus Concerns in XP and .NET Environments

Created: 06 Jul 2003 • Updated: 02 Nov 2010
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by Roger A. Grimes

After Windows NT was released, it took virus writers five years to learn how to infect it. Windows NT 3.1 and the Win32 API were released in late 1993, but it wasn't until August 1998 that W32.Cabanas became the first NT virus by capturing coveted kernel mode access. .NET and some of Microsoft's other initiatives have not been as lucky. The purpose of this article is to discuss antivirus (AV) concerns with .NET and Microsoft Windows XP.

.NET Review

.NET was officially announced by Microsoft in July 2000 at a Microsoft Professional Development Conference. Since then, what .NET has meant and the products involved have changed (and been renamed). .NET is an idea and a programming platform. The basic concept is an evolving extension of Microsoft's Object Linking Embedding (OLE) introduced back in the early days of Windows 3.0. OLE allows you to copy objects and data created in one application, like a spreadsheet graph, to other applications. OLE evolved into ActiveX objects, which are executables you can download and run within an Internet browser.

.NET takes it two steps further by allowing the entire application to be hosted elsewhere (potentially allowing your environment to follow you, no matter where you go) and allowing different distributed software parts to make up one application. For example, your Windows desktop settings, your applications, and your data may be available to you where ever you compute. Running by an Internet kiosk in an airport? Just login and access your desktop and your data. Different applications will co-exist together, over the web, to bring you that integrated environment. One vendor will handle the login and authentication, another will store your data, and each of your applications will be made up of specifically customized components. I'll take two thesauruses, a math equation editor, and a French translation dictionary please. Hold the autocorrect.

All of this magic happens because of new distributed .NET programming platform and a horde of new Microsoft developer tools and languages: C# (C Sharp), Visual J#, VB.NET, Visual Studio .NET, ASP.NET, increased reliance on XML, and a host of other new programming tools and platforms.

The .NET execution framework reminds many people of Java's model. In order for a Java applet to run, it must be executed in a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) environment. .NET executables (regular Windows 32-bit Portable Executables) run on top of a similar environment called the Common Language Runtime or CLR. This is what you are installing when you install the Microsoft .NET Framework component. The CLR runtime engine performs security checks, does type checking, checks memory pointers, loads other component dependencies, and Just-In-Time (JIT) compiles the platform-independent source code into executable code. And further, there are intermediate source code representations (called Microsoft Intermediate Language or MSIL), class files, class loaders, and separate treatment between trusted and untrusted code. Untrusted code is sandboxed and prevented from accessing or risking system resources. This should sound a whole lot like Java to anyone.

I bring up this comparison because .NET is more complex than Java, and complexity doesn't mix well with security. I often hear that Java is very secure because it has only had one widespread in-the-wild exploit. I love Java and the people who designed it did so with security as top priority. But the truth is that Java has had dozens of security holes patched since its release. Just because the white-hatters are the ones finding them doesn't make it a secure platform. Many Java exploits have been found by breaking assumptions between its mesh of interoperating components. See, in order for Java security to work, all the components must work 100% of the time. If one fails, they all fail. Because .NET's execution model is roughly similar, it isn't a hard stretch to believe that many holes will be found in .NET.

Web Services

Web services are the reason for all the complexity. Web services are XML applications, interfaces, and data, designed to be shared across multiple platforms around the Internet. A web service might be a single application hosted by an Application Service Provider (ASP) or it could be a combination of several different vendor's web services making up one application experience for the user. For example, consider a typical online transaction such as buying a pair of jeans. You may use one web service to authenticate your login to the manufacturer's web site, another to help get you the perfect fit, and another to determine delivery details and payments.

Microsoft's Passport was the first example of a web service. Passport allows you to use a single login name and password for all web sites that support Passport authentication. It has tens of millions of users and it has had a series of security issues over the years. In one such instance in May of this year, it was discovered that a remote attacker could send a rather trivial, malicious URL to hotmail.com, be able to change anyone's password and take over the passport account. Maliciously altered Passport accounts can be used to buy goods online and to view confidential data.

The idea that a single, widespread web service with a vulnerability that can immediately expose tens of millions of people to new threats has security experts paying attention. Today's conventional worms and viruses are infecting millions of computers in ten minutes. But a crafty web service worm could potentially conduct millions of falsified commercial transactions in a matter of minutes, something a MS-Office macro virus can't hope to do.

The complexity and popular use of .NET's execution model worries security experts. The widespread sharing of applications, code, and data around the Internet is bound to culminate in interesting future exploits. Lucky for us so far, .NET exploits have been limited to some 'growing pain' problems with Microsoft Passport and a few worms and viruses.

.NET Viruses

There are already at least three .NET worms and viruses: Donut, Serot and Sharpei. Donut, discovered on January 9, 2002, was the first .NET virus. Sent only to researchers as concept malware, the buggy Donut attempts to infect all the .EXE files in the current folder and up to 20 folders above it. It contains a never-executed payload display message and only a small amount of MSIL code. It is mostly normal 32-bit assembly language and the .NET files it infects are turned into regular looking PE files. Donut was the first .NET virus, but it only had a short lead on the others.

Donut was quickly followed up by the Serot, worm which arrives as an impersonated email from support@microsoft.com. It infects all .NET (MSIL) .EXE files on drive C: and will attempt to send itself to all email addresses in the Windows Address Book and those it finds in the Internet Explorer cache folder. Like the virus that followed it, Serot contains a VBS file that does the mass mailing effort. This appears to be easier to do in a script language for the crackers than in MSIL. Serot attempts to terminate antivirus processes on infected PCs and contains a plug-in architecture similar to the one successfully used in the Hybris worm.

Then the Sharpei virus was discovered on February 26, 2002. It arrives in email pretending to be a Microsoft patch, MS02-010.EXE. Written in C#, it drops a Sharp.VBS file that sends itself to all contacts in the Microsoft Outlook address book. After messages are sent, the evidence is deleted from the Sent Items folder in Outlook.

Both the Sharpei and Donut viruses are direct action infectors, meaning they execute and do their damage upon running, and then exit until the next execution. All three "concept" programs have their problems and are unlikely to spread far. Antivirus researchers expect the future to bring memory-resident .NET viruses.

Note: Peter Szor, with Symantec, did detailed write-ups on Donut and Sharpei for the Virus Bulletin publication. You can visit www.peterszor.com or www.virusbtn.com for detailed reading on .NET infections.

Because all three .NET malware programs are very buggy and require .NET to be installed, none spread very far outside research laboratories. But a crucial point, that malware writers are ready to exploit the .NET framework, has been proven. It won't be a five-year wait this time. Meanwhile, new features in other Microsoft platforms have raised concern among AV experts.

 

Windows XP Concerns

Windows XP has an improved model of NT's HAL, kernel, and user mode processes. Overall, with XP and Server 2003, Microsoft has increased the stability and security of their operating systems. True, Internet Explorer and Outlook continue to be the weak points in Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative, but their core operating systems are becoming more secure out of the box. At the same time, Microsoft cannot resist (and consumers demand) new features, and XP has plenty of those. Some have been exploited, most haven't...yet. The next part of this article will briefly discuss the new feature XP sets that concern computer security analysts.

Windows Media Player

It used to be that you only had to worry about malicious executable content. Data was data was data, and it could not be launched as an attack. Times change and data content is often exploited in today's multimedia world. The content itself can be used maliciously, in a buffer overflow or through embedded script languages. Another common ruse is for the file to have a header claiming it is one type of file, but instead it contains something completely different, bypassing security-checking mechanisms. The multimedia program itself is often used for the attack. If the interface allows scripting or "skin" updating, rogue coders can instruct the program to do things that would otherwise be constrained by one of Internet Explorer's security zones.

Microsoft's Windows Media Player is installed by default on every version of Windows. The original release of XP came with version 8.0, although anyone can upgrade to version 9 for free. Several holes have been found with the Windows Media Player over the last few years, and Microsoft has patched them when reported. The older versions of Windows Media Player have more security holes than the newer versions, but many people are hesitant to upgrade because of their bulkiness and the restrictive Digital Rights Management features of the newer versions. To be fair to Microsoft, let's not forget that Flash files, RealPlayer, Winamp, and just about every other popular media distribution content has be found to have one or more exploit holes over the past year. But network administrators would appreciate it if Windows Media Player was not installed by default and upgrades were not offered to end-users via Windows Update when it has been removed on purpose.

WebDAV (Web Digital Authoring and Versioning)

WebDAV is a feature installed on machines with XP or IIS 5, or greater. WebDAV is a HTTP protocol extension that allows users to publish and collaborate on documents that are stored on the web. Contrary to common belief, WebDAV is a popular open standard and not just a Microsoft feature. There have been a handful of exploits against Microsoft's implementation of WebDAV, including DoS and buffer overflows. The biggest problem with WebDAV is that it is installed and turned on by default when most people don't use it. It's a good, powerful collaboration tool, it just needs more security analysis and should not be turned on by default. WebDAV is not turned on by default on Server 2003 and IIS 6.

Remote Desktop Connection

Remote Desktop Connection allows one XP Pro PC to remotely connect and control another XP Pro PC with a PC Anywhere-style session. Remote Desktop, as it is called in the System Control Panel applet, uses Terminal Server's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) over TCP port 3389. It is not turned on by default, and so far has not been exploited. Still, knowing that it is installed as an inactive shell on every Windows XP computer, many of which are poorly secured, raises some concerns.

Remote Assistance

Unlike Remote Desktop Connection, Remote Assistance is turned on by default. It allows one XP user to invite, using either email or instant messaging, another XP user to have remote control access over their PC. Besides desktop control, the remote user can participate in chat sessions and transfer files. Invitations can be open for many days, and the default is 30 days. One of the main concerns is that there is no vetting mechanism to guarantee who is who in the remote assistance scenario. There exists the possibility that a malicious remote user may impersonate a tech support person and plant malicious files. While there have been no public exploits using Remote Assistance, AV experts worry about poorly password protected connections and buffer overflow attacks.

Internet Connetion Firewall (ICF)

Microsoft's first attempt at a desktop firewall is laudable, but comes up a bit short. ICF's main deficiency is that it lacks the ability to block outgoing port traffic. Many malware programs, once installed, will initiate outbound communications to continue their maliciousness. It could be a remote access trojan contacting its originating hacker to advertise the successful intrusion or an email worm with its own SMTP engine sending itself out around the world. In either of these two cases, because ICF allows all outgoing requests by default, the end-user will not be warned. Most of today's personal desktop firewalls would stop the request and alert the user. I hope if Microsoft continues to support ICF as firewall product that additional features sets will be added and its usefulness increased. ICF is also installed on Server 2003.

UPnP

Universal Plug and Play is another feature that should be turned off by default. UPnP allows a Windows machine to discover UPnP devices (ex. printers, scanners, etc.) on the network and to auto-configure their use. UPnP ended up being XP's first big publicly touted hole in December 2001. It was a buffer overflow and could be successfully exploited over the Internet, and if a firewall did not block UDP port 1900, it could be used to gain complete control of the machine. Luckily, UPnP is not even installed on Microsoft's latest offering, Windows 2003.

Simple File Sharing

XP the Home Edition has a feature called Simple File Sharing. When a folder is shared, it is immediately accessible to everyone on the local network and no specific permissions can be set. The folder can be set as read-only, but if changes are allowed, full control is given to anyone who can see the folder. AV experts worry that if a virus or worm gets loose on a home network with Windows XP Home, the malware will have no problem traveling machine to machine using network shares

Windows Messenger

Microsoft's Windows Messenger is installed by default on XP Pro and Home editions. Instant messaging (IM) clients open additional avenues for attacks. First, there have been many buffer overflow attacks against instant messaging clients, even when not turned on and only installed. Second, IM clients allow yet another avenue for the unsuspecting Joe User to receive malicious files. Many antivirus programs do not monitor IM file transfers. Third, there are malicious programs and viruses that specifically target Microsoft's IM clients. Although not attacked nearly as much as IRC and AOL's AIM clients, instant messaging is a technology being used before the security is all in place.

Office XP

Although only affiliated with Windows XP by name only, here's a good point to discuss a potential security problem in Microsoft Office XP. One of the most touted features of Office XP is its ability to read and write files in XML format. Macro viruses, which for several years were the number one infection type, have been mostly tamed by Office's macro security and antivirus software. XML has the potential to allow yet another round of new technology viruses into our Office documents. This is because XML is an everyman's language. An XML file is what you define it to be. Besides text, it can contain executable code, scripting, multi-media content, whatever programmers might want it to contain. As has been proven so many times in the past, flexibility and choice increases the risk of malicious exploitation.

I'm sure there are some features I missed that may be exploited in the future, but at the moment these are the main ones garnering increased scrutiny by security professionals.

Windows XP Security

Before this paper ends, I want to point out that security has been strengthened in Windows XP, and much more so in Windows 2003. XP was the first Microsoft operating system to offer a firewall (ICF), and it's better than nothing for the consumer that isn't motivated to install another vendor's personal firewall product. XP has Encrypted File System (EFS), Windows File Protection (WFP), Certificate Services, IPSEC, Kerberos, Software Restriction Policies, and System Restore. All of these additional features fight malicious code and are welcome additions to the Microsoft family. All security reviews of Server 2003 have been positive. More unnecessary features have been turned off by default and file and registry settings strengthened.

 

Summary

The complexity of the .NET execution platform worries security experts. Once it is widespread, malicious coders will find holes in between the interoperable layers and then execute security exploits. The persuasive nature of web services means that one malware threat could quickly compromise a large number of machines. There are already three .NET viruses and worms. Although they are buggy, future viruses and worms will be able to perform without error as crackers begin to target .NET.

Windows XP contains much new functionality, some of which has been exploited, and other features which have yet to be maliciously explored. XP also contains many new security features, like Windows File Protection and Internet Connection Firewall, which strengthens the OS's response to security threats.

Roger A. Grimes, CPA, MCSE (NT/2000), CNE (3/4), A+, has been fighting malicious code since 1987 and is the author of Malicious Mobile Code: Virus Protection for Windows (O'Reilly). He is a frequent writer and speaker on computer security topics. His next book, Honeypots for Windows (APress) will be available near the end of the year.

This article originally appeared on SecurityFocus.com -- reproduction in whole or in part is not allowed without expressed written consent.