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Viruses, Worms and Biodiversity

Working Groups
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

Viruses, Worms and Biodiversity in Computer Systems

By Amy Palke, Mills College

Introduction: What is "biodiversity in computer systems"?

Computer systems, from hardware to operating systems to software, have largely been designed to work in a predictable, consistent manner in order to provide compatibility and ease of use. As a result, there are currently millions of nearly identical computer systems throughout the world. For example, of 39 million web sites surveyed by Netcraft, 90% are running one of two web server applications, Apache (62.51%) or Microsoft Internet Information Services (27.44%) [19]. This consistent-and-compatible philosophy has made it easier to build software, but it has also made it easier to build malicious viruses and worms.

In nature, a species without much genetic diversity is at a high risk for being decimated by a single disease. Since the various members don’t have unique defenses that could protect them, all members of the species may be susceptible to the same disease. In computer systems, we face the same problems. If a weakness or "hole" is identified in an application or operating system, someone can write a virus that can successfully attack and disrupt a massive number of computers.

As huge numbers of computers all over the world have become networked together, it has become possible to spread a single computer disease throughout the world in a manner of minutes. The recent SQL Slammer worm took roughly 10 minutes to spread across the world, and infected more than 90 percent of vulnerable hosts [9]. The SQL Slammer epidemic is an example of the risks faced by a non-diverse application.

One possible way to protect computer systems from succumbing to an attack is to introduce more diversity into the systems. If computers were injected with more diversity, fewer computers would share the same vulnerabilities, and it would be difficult to create a malicious program capable of widespread infestation.

Diversity will add complexity, which could mean more work for programmers, IT personnel, and end users. This means that diversity will only be embraced if its costs are out-weighed by its benefits. In order to understand the current and potential cost of monoculture computer systems, we need to first understand how viruses and worms work, and better understand their destructive capabilities.

Understanding viruses and worms

A distinction is usually made between viruses and worms. A virus is described as a piece of code embedded inside of an otherwise benign program. The virus-infected program is then either inadvertently distributed by users, or deliberately distributed by additional virus code. A worm is an independent program, which typically does not have to be activated by the user in order to start running. Once running, the worm tries to propagate itself to new host machines over the network.

Both viruses and worms may contain intentionally destructive code, often called a "payload". However many contain no malicious code at all, their intent being simply to spread themselves. Even without malicious code, viruses and worms can cause great damage as they spread around the world, clogging up the Internet and company mail servers. To better understand the effects of these programs in general, we will examine a few of them in more detail.

Notable worms and viruses

The first worm

In 1978 at Xerox PARC, John Shoch was analyzing network traffic patterns, and wanted to install a program to assist him on all 200 Altos in the network [1]. He decided to write a self-loading program that could seek out new hosts, to save himself the effort of wandering around the office, installing the program manually on each machine.

Shoch let his worm loose one evening, and returned to work the next day to find all of the computers in his research center had crashed. When the computers were restarted, they quickly crashed again as the worm started up and continued its search for new hosts. Fortunately Shoch had added "self-destruct" code to his worm, and was able to kill off the worm by sending a command over the network.

From their earliest incarnations, it was clear that worms had the potential to cause massive damage even if they contained no deliberately malicious payload.

Chernobyl virus

In June of 1998 a particularly malicious virus called Chernobyl started spreading around the world in infected Windows 95 and Windows 98 executable files [11]. Running an infected program caused the virus to begin running, first copying itself to all of the other .exe files on the computer. The virus code was extremely small, around 1kB, and it attached itself to executables in such a manner that the size of the executable did not grow at all.

Chernobyl’s initial infection often went unnoticed, but on April 28th, the code would become extremely destructive. First the code would overwrite the entire hard disk, and next it would attempt to overwrite the computer’s flash BIOS chip. If the flash BIOS chip were overwritten, the computer would not be able to boot up.

Many people and several companies inadvertently spread Chernobyl around the world. Yamaha shipped an infected software update file for their CD-R400 drives, and IBM shipped a batch of infected Aptiva PCs during March of 1999, just one month prior to the destructive trigger date [11].

Lovebug/ILOVEYOU worm

Worms typically utilize a weakness in software code that allows the worm code to run, but in May of 2000, a worm appeared that took advantage of a human weakness, instead of relying on a computer weakness. The Lovebug worm appeared in an email that stated, "kindly check the attached LOVELETTER coming from me." and contained an attached file named "LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs" [11]. Hundreds of thousands of hopeful users double-clicked the attachment, only to find that instead of having a secret admirer, they were host to a malicious worm.

The "love letter" attachment was a Microsoft Visual Basic Script, and if the host machine was running Microsoft Outlook, the worm sent an identical email with the love letter message and worm attachment to all email addresses in the Outlook Address Book.

The worm created a huge load on office email servers, sending out emails and filling up mailboxes. Many large companies and institutions, including the US Senate, were forced to take their mail servers offline [18]. According to the research firm Computer Economics, the Lovebug virus is estimated to have cost a total of $8.75 billion for clean up efforts and loss of productivity [10].

Sapphire/SQL Slammer worm

On Saturday January 25th, 2003, at 5:30am GMT, the fastest spreading worm to date began infecting machines running Microsoft SQL Server or MSDE 2000 (Microsoft SQL Server Desktop Engine) [9]. Within 10 minutes the worm had infected 90% of vulnerable hosts, over 75,000 computers. At its peak, the worm was doubling the total number of infected machines every 8.5 seconds.

The Sapphire worm took advantage of a buffer overflow vulnerability in SQL Server, overwriting the return address on the stack to cause worm code to be executed. The worm code was never written to disk, so rebooting the machine would eliminate the infection, but without repairing the underlying vulnerability the machine would continue to become re-infected.

Although the Sapphire worm had no destructive payload, it caused massive worldwide problems. Soon after it started spreading, packet loss across the entire Internet was nearly 20%, and 5 of the 13 main domain name servers were down [11]. Many local area networks were impacted as well when one of their machines became infected, and the worm began to monopolize network traffic. Some 911 call centers were forced to use paper and pencil to track calls, and many ATMs throughout the world were out of commission [22].

The threat of viruses and worms

After examining several specific viruses and worms, we can take a step back to better understand the general concepts of how these programs work and the potential they have for causing widespread damage.

Monoculture computer systems

Most viruses and worms can operate on only one type of operating system, and most take advantage of vulnerabilities in a particular software application. Since a single operating system or application may be used by millions of users, a vulnerability found on one system is likely to be found on millions. Therefore the task of writing a malicious program that could affect millions of computers is much more simple than if computers had to be attacked one by one.

Companies tend to standardize on one specific operating system, one specific email program, one specific program for creating documents, etc. These standards are designed to reduce IT costs, and to enable information to spread easily within the company. However, this monoculture also allows viruses and worms to spread quickly and easily within a company.

Rapid infestation

When viruses were first developed, they had to travel from machine to machine via floppy disk, or later through infected executables downloaded from bulletin boards. It took a long time for a virus to spread this way, allowing time for word of the virus to spread, and for users to take preventative measures to avoid becoming infected.

As computers throughout the world became networked together through the Internet, it became much quicker for a virus or worm to spread throughout the world, rapidly creating an epidemic. One infected machine can spread its infection to all of the machines it knows how to reach, and so on. To further complicate matters, the Internet has linked home, hobby and business computers together, all with varying levels of attention to security concerns and updates.

Potential damage

So far, most widespread viruses and worms have not had much in the way of a malicious payload. Many had no specific malicious intentions, but their rapid spreading caused networks to be overloaded and shut down.

It is clear, however, that the potential for damage is huge. If the Lovebug worm had overwritten hard drives, or BIOS chips like Chernobyl, massive amounts of data would have been lost forever, and many computers would have been rendered useless to their owners.

Ineffective security systems

Traditional security measures, such as virus scanners and firewalls, have failed to provide adequate defense against many malicious programs. Once a virus or worm has been identified, virus-scanning software is updated, and software patches are created and applied. This prevents systems from becoming re-infected with the same program, and often prevents infections from similar programs, but it does nothing to prevent the initial outbreak. Firewalls protected many computers from the Sapphire worm, but firewalls are not effective protection if the attack is based on a public network service.

With the Sapphire worm, it became clear that planning to protect yourself after an outbreak had started was unrealistic, no matter how quickly you could respond. Sapphire’s rapid worldwide spread (10 minutes) meant there was no chance that anyone could get word of the worm and take protective measures in time to prevent the infestation. In order to truly protect computers from infection, a new methodology is required.

Introducing and encouraging diversity

Past experience demonstrates that viruses and worms pose a huge threat to the computer systems in the world. Likewise it is clear that the current methods employed to prevent infections simply aren’t working. While most security experts focus on writing better virus scanning software and keeping security patches up to date, a few others are exploring a different model for security. This model is based on ideas found in biology, and its goal is to create systems that may be immune to future infections.

The key idea behind computer diversity is to avoid unnecessary consistency across computers. There are often many, slightly different ways that programs can execute at a low level while providing the same high-level functionality. Therefore it should be possible to create an application with consistent, predictable high-level behavior, while removing arbitrary low-level consistencies.

Memory location protection

Memory is allocated to programs in a particular, consistent manner, but this consistency is not mandatory for the programs to run successfully. The allocation strategy could be changed to provide randomization that would make it much harder for viruses and worms to take advantage of buffer overflow vulnerabilities. One possible change is to insert a random amount of padding in each stack frame, causing return addresses to be stored in unpredictable locations [12][17].

Randomized compilation techniques

When a program is compiled, many arbitrary decisions are made. High-level code could be compiled into many different, but functionally identical lines of machine code. However, currently the same lines of high-level code will always be compiled into the same lines of machine code. Similarly, the order of the machine code could often be arranged in several ways, with identical functionality, but current compilers won’t arbitrarily choose different orderings. If compilers were changed to produce arbitrarily different, but functionally identical code with each compile, they could create a set of diverse executables with identical functionality [4][12].

This diversity would likely make it much more difficult for a virus or worm programmer to create a single program that could attack all of the different binary versions of the program. Some of the binaries might be immune to the attack, which would slow or halt its progress.

Program evolution

The term "security through obscurity" is often associated with the idea of keeping key details proprietary in order to provide security. The problem with this method is that once your secret is out, your security is gone.

Obscurity can provide a good deal of security however, if the hidden details do not remain constant. Security expert Fred Cohen advocates creating operating systems and programs that constantly alter themselves in order to provide obscurity [4]. A self-modifying program could evolve or change itself slightly with each system call. This would make even a targeted attack against a particular machine difficult, as a particular vulnerability found one day might not exist in the same spot on the following day.

Diverse operating systems and software

In February 2003, one of the 13 DNS root servers began running a different name server software application. Prior to this, all root servers used the same application. According to the administrators running this root server, "the change was designed to increase the diversity of software in the root name server system, the lack of which is widely considered to be a potential vulnerability." [23]

The problems and payoffs of diversity

Any attempt to diversify computer systems will add complexity to developing software and maintaining the IT systems at a company. At the moment, diversity is not widely viewed as cost effective. The cost benefits are currently hard to weigh, as most companies have not been tracking and budgeting the costs of recovering from virus and worm attacks. Likewise people may be underestimating the destructive capabilities of viruses and worms, thereby underestimating the cost of recovery.

It is highly likely that a particularly deadly virus or worm will surface at some point. When the damage has been severe enough that the cost of recovering from an attack is perceived to be greater than the cost of preventing an attack, then perhaps more people will think seriously about the potential benefits of diversity. It would be unfortunate if a catastrophic event were required for the economic benefits of diversity to become apparent to all.




  1. Author Unknown, "Benefits of the Computer Virus"
  2. CERT Coordination Center, "CERT/CC Incident Notes"
  3. Cloakware Corporation
  4. Cohen, Frederick B., "Operating System Protection Through Program Evolution", 1992
  5. Cohen, Frederick B., A Short Course on Computer Viruses. NY: Wiley & Sons, 1994
  6. Cohen, Frederick B., "Understanding Viruses Bio-logically", 2000
  7. Computer Knowledge, "Computer Knowledge Virus Tutorial"
  8. The Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), "CAIDA Analysis of Code-Red"
  9. The Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), et al, "Analysis of the Sapphire Worm - A joint effort of CAIDA, ICSI, Silicon Defense, UC Berkeley EECS and UC San Diego CSE"
  10. Delio, Michelle, "Find the Cost of (Virus) Freedom," Wired News, January 14th 2002,1377,49681,00.html
  11. F-Secure Corporation, Virus Description Database
  12. Forrest, Stephanie, Anil Somayaji & David H. Ackley, "Building Diverse Computer Systems", 1997
  13. Grimes, Roger A., "Not Your Mother's Computer Virus"
  14. Howstuffworks: "How Computer Viruses Work"
  15. Huang, Yinrong, "Population of Diverse Executables With the Same Functionality"
  16. Karrenberg, Daniel, " Changing DNS Software at on 19.2.2003", RIPE DNS Working Group mailing list, February 14, 2003
  17. Kc, Gaurav S., Stephen A. Edwards, Gail E. Kaiser, Angelos Keromytis, "CASPER: Compiler-Assisted Securing of Programs at Runtime"
  18. McDonald, Tim, "Microsoft's Monopoly on Security Flaws", August 17, 2000
  19. Netcraft, "March 2003 Web Server Survey"
  20. O’Connor, Thomas R., "Virus and Malware Prevention"
  21. Quarterman, John S., "Monoculture Considered Harmful", First Monday, volume 7, number 2 (February 2002)
  22. Record Searchlight Newspaper, "Web worm halts 911, ATMs", January 28, 2003
  23. The Réseaux IP Européens Network Co-ordination Centre (RIPE NCC), Amsterdam Press release: "NSD Deployed on", February 26, 2003
  24. Skrenta, Richard, "Various projects, past and present"
  25. Seltzer, Richard, Bob Fleischer, "Diversity and vulnerability to viruses"
  26. Stalder, Felix, "Viruses on the Internet: Monoculture breeds parasites", October 5, 2000
  27. Tobias, Daniel R., "Monoculture: Just As Bad an Idea in Computing as in Agriculture", December 15, 2002
  28. Wikipedia, "Computer virus"
  29. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, "Understanding Computer Viruses"
  30. University of Virginia, "Virus and Worm Propagation Studies"
  31. Virus Bulletin, "Database of virus analyses and descriptions"
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