Most of us trust our anti-virus software to defence us because the AV companies appear to have won the battle with the virus-writers. They understand the tricks that virus writers use, and they have the techniques to defend against them.
But in the latest in our series of articles from recent MSc graduates of Royal Holloway College, Evgenios Konstantinou warns that our comfort might be short-lived. He traces the development of the virus from its early days right through to the far more sophisticated polymorphic and metamorphic examples, which he says could prove impossible to block.
Konstantinou, who works in the information security department of the Marfin Popular Bank in Cyprus, says he has been fascinated with malicious code since his undergraduate days, and says this is what inspired him to do the Masters course at Royal Holloway.
"Malicious code is interesting because it is not just boring software," he says. "It is a very intelligent piece of code, written by very intelligent people, and it gives the impression that it has 'a life of its own'. Metamorphic viruses are the most ingenious and advanced viruses ever written, so their study is very interesting. In addition to this, malicious software is one of the greatest threats to information technology."
The metamorphic viruses that he details in the article are so complex and difficult to write, he says, that they are beyond the ability of most virus writers. And with so much easy money to be had from other types of cybercrime, such as phishing and DDOS attacks, metamorphic viruses appeared for a while to be less of a threat.
But now there are signs that hackers are once more trying their hand at building these viruses that, according to Konstantinou, would be very hard to defend against.
Anyone in security whose knowledge of virus-writing is less than complete should read this article, especially those who, in Konstantinou's words "do not want to be tricked by vendors who claim that their anti-virus software 'can detect everything'".
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