Summary, Conclusions, and Further Work

Summary, Conclusions, and Further Work

Copyright(c), 1984, Fred Cohen - All Rights Reserved

To quickly summarize, absolute protection can be easily attained by absolute isolationism, but that is usually an unacceptable solution. Other forms of protection all seem to depend on the use of extremely complex and/or resource intensive analytical techniques, or imprecise solutions that tend to make systems less usable with time.

Prevention appears to involve restricting legitimate activities, while cure may be arbitrarily difficult without some denial of services. Precise detection is undecidable, however statistical methods may be used to limit undetected spreading either in time or in extent. Behavior of typical usage must be well understood in order to use statistical methods, and this behavior is liable to vary from system to system. Limited forms of detection and prevention could be used in order to offer limited protection from viruses.

It has been demonstrated that a virus has the potential to spread throughout any system which allows sharing. Every general purpose system currently in use is open to at least limited viral attack. In many current 'secure' systems, viruses tend to spread further when created by less trusted users. Experiments show the viability of viral attack, and indicate that viruses spread quickly and are easily created on a variety of operating systems. Further experimentation is still underway.

The results presented are not operating system or implementation specific, but are based on the fundamental properties of systems. More importantly, they reflect realistic assumptions about systems currently in use. Further, nearly every 'secure' system currently under development is based on the Bell-LaPadula or lattice policy alone, and this work has clearly demonstrated that these models are insufficient to prevent viral attack. The virus essentially proves that integrity control must be considered an essential part of any secure operating system.

Several undecidable problems have been identified with respect to viruses and countermeasures. The are summarized here:

Undecidable Detection Problems

Several potential countermeasures were examined in some depth, and none appear to offer ideal solutions. Several of the techniques suggested in this paper which could offer limited viral protection are in limited use at this time. To be perfectly secure against viral attacks, a system must protect against incoming information flow, while to be secure against leakage of information a system must protect against outgoing information flow. In order for systems to allow sharing, there must be some information flow. It is therefore the major conclusion of this paper that the goals of sharing in a general purpose multilevel security system may be in such direct opposition to the goals of viral security as to make their reconciliation and coexistence impossible.

The most important ongoing research involves the effect of viruses on computer networks. Of primary interest is determining how quickly a virus could spread to a large percentage of the computers in the world. This is being done through simplified mathematical models and studies of viral spreading in 'typical' computer networks. The implications of a virus in a secure network are also of great interest. Since the virus leads us to believe that both integrity and security must be maintained in a system in order to prevent viral attack, a network must also maintain both criterion in order to allow multilevel sharing between computers. This introduces significant constraints on these networks.

Significant examples of evolutionary programs have been developed at the source level for producing many evolutions of a given program. A simple evolving virus has been developed, and a simple evolving antibody is also under development. A flow list mechanism for Unix will be implemented when the necessary hardware is available, and the instrumentation of networks is expected to continue as long as facilities and funding permit. Statistical detection techniques based on the results of instrumentation are also in the planning stages, and a set of guidelines for reducing the viral threat have been developed.


Because of the sensitive nature of much of this research and the experiments performed in its course, many of the people to whom I am greatly indebted cannot be explicitly thanked. Rather than ignoring anyone's help, I have decided to give only first names. Len and David have provided a lot of good advice in both the research and writing of this paper, and without them I likely would never have gotten it to this point. John, Frank, Connie, Chris, Peter, Terry, Dick, Jerome, Mike, Marv, Steve, Lou, Steve, Andy, and Loraine all put their noses on the line more than just a little bit in their efforts to help perform experiments, publicize results, and lend covert support to the work. Martin, John, Magdy, Xi-an, Satish, Chris, Steve, JR, Jay, Bill, Fadi, Irv, Saul, and Frank all listened and suggested, and their patience and friendship were invaluable. Alice, John, Mel, Ann, and Ed provided better blocking than the USC front 4 ever has.