Science Scope

'Frankenstein' may allow computer viruses to mutate, evolve

Posting in Science

A new program could bring a day when computer viruses create themselves inside your machine, using little bits of code from your programs.

Computer viruses are not so different from other viruses.

The way biological viruses infect organisms, computer viruses infect computers.

And the way biological viruses mutate and evolve for survival, the makers of so-called malware must keep updating their "products" in order to escape antivirus software.

But a new innovation could make it much more difficult to beat computer viruses.

Two researchers at the University of Texas Dallas, Vishwath Mohan and Kevin Hamlen, demonstrated a program earlier this month that could help the makers of malware create viruses that assemble themselves out of all the bits and pieces of code in their victim computers.

Their program is called “Frankenstein,” after the scientist in Mary Shelley's novel who created a monster (at least in the film versions) out of different body parts gathered from from graveyards and slaughterhouses.

How Frankenstein works

In any computer, all the programs are created from bits of code. The code in your word processor is different from the code that runs your web browser, but all this code is written in a similar language.

Frankenstein uses these commonalities underlying code to stitch together new programs. It may take a chunk of code from your computer's calculator to add numbers together. Then it may take another chunk that puts a number into memory from your computer's spreadsheet application, such as Microsoft Excel.

And how does it do all this? It starts with a blueprint that outlines the goal of the program. Using this "semantic blueprint," it runs through all the programs on the host machine until it gets all the various bits of code that will run the instructions it needs.

The pros and cons of Frankenstein viruses

As you can see, one Frankenstein-created blueprint could spawn many individual viruses, depending on what software is in the host computer. On the other hand, the fact that Frankenstein needs to use code from existing software could make it unappealing for cybercriminals because it would be slower at spreading from computer to computer.

Then again, the creators of malware may find use for Frankenstein in short-lived attacks. The Economist notes that the U.S. Air Force paid for this research, and the authors also observe that this type of knowledge could help in "active defense." (A k a pre-emption?)

Related on SmartPlanet:

via: The Economist

photo: Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster in The Bride of Frankenstein. (Wikipedia)

Share this

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure