The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

Volume 7 Issue 70

Thursday 3 November 1988


o Updated worm report
Gene Spafford
o A worm "condom"
Gene Spafford
o A cure!!!!!
Gene Spafford
o Computer Network Disrupted by `Virus'
John Markoff via Geoff Goodfellow
o "Annals of Democracy -- Counting Votes" in the New Yorker
Daniel B Dobkin
o Comments on the New Yorker article
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

Updated worm report

Gene Spafford <>
Fri, 04 Nov 88 00:27:54 EST
This is an updated description of how the worm works (note: it is 
technically a worm, not a virus, since it does not attach itself
to other code {that we know about}):

All of our Vaxen and some of our Suns here were infected with the worm.  The
worm forks repeated copies of itself as it tries to spread itself, and the load
averages on the infected machines skyrocketed.  In fact, it got to the point
that some of the machines ran out of swap space and kernel table entries,
preventing login to even see what was going on!

The worm seems to consist of two parts.  The way that it works is as

1) Virus running on an infected machine opens a TCP connection to a
victim machine's sendmail, invokes debug mode, and submits a version
of itself as a mail message.
*OR* it uses rsh to create itself on the remote machine through
an account requiring no password (due to hosts.equiv or .rhosts
entries).  *OR* it gets in via a bug in fingerd *OR* it uses telnet
(more on this later).

Using the sendmail route, it does something like:
From: /dev/null
To: "|sed -e 1,/^$/d | sh; exit 0"

cd /usr/tmp
cat > x14481910.c <<'EOF'

A worm "condom"

Gene Spafford <>
Thu, 03 Nov 88 21:20:10 EST
... Kevin Braunsdorf & Rich Kulawiec (Purdue-CC) have come up with a "condom"
to protect your machine against the CURRENT worm.  They are not 100% sure it
works, but it seems to be completely effective and it can't do any harm.  As
ROOT, do:

mkdir /usr/tmp/sh
chmod 111 /usr/tmp/sh

Then edit your rc.local file to recreate the directory in case of a reboot.
This will not stop a current infection, but it will prevent any new ones
from taking hold -- it prevents the worm from creating replicas.

... --spaf

A cure!!!!!

Gene Spafford <>
Thu, 03 Nov 88 22:04:15 EST

Kevin ("Adb's your friend.") Braunsdorf just burst into my office
with a cure discovered in the disassembled worm binary.

If there is an external variable in the library named "pleasequit" that is
non-zero, the worm will die immediately after exiting.  Thus, to kill any new
worms, include a patch in your library that defines the symbol.  The following
shell file and source code will modify your C library to define this symbol.

It WON'T kill any currently linked and running versions, but it will
prevent reinfection.

# Shar archive.  Give the following as input to /bin/sh
#  Packed Thu Nov  3 21:56:35 EST 1988 by
#  This archive contains:
#   foo.c
echo x -
sed 's/^X//' > <<'*-**-*'
Xcc -c foo.c -o foo.o
Xcp /lib/libc.a /lib/libc.a.old
Xar q /lib/libc.a foo.o
Xranlib /lib/libc.a
echo x - foo.c
sed 's/^X//' >foo.c <<'*-*-END-of-foo.c-*-*'
Xextern int pleasequit = -1;

Computer Network Disrupted by `Virus'

the tty of Geoff Goodfellow <>
Thu, 3 Nov 88 21:30:19 PST
c.1988 N.Y. Times News Service=

       In an intrusion that raises new questions about the
vulnerability of the nation's computers, a nationwide Department of
Defense data network has been disrupted since Wednesday night by a
rapidly spreading ``virus'' software program apparently introduced
by a computer science student's malicious experiment.
       The program reproduced itself through the computer network,
making hundreds of copies in each machine it reached, effectively
clogging systems linking thousands of military, corporate and
university computers around the country and preventing them from
doing additional work. The virus is thought not to have destroyed
any files.
       By late Thursday afternoon computer security experts were
calling the virus the largest assault ever on the nation's
       ``The big issue is that a relatively benign software program can
virtually bring our computing community to its knees and keep it
there for some time,'' said Chuck Cole, deputy computer security
manager at Lawerence Livermore Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., one
of the sites affected by the intrusion. ``The cost is going to be
       Clifford Stoll,^ @a computer security expert at Harvard
University, added: ``There is not one system manager who is not
tearing his hair out. It's causing enormous headaches.''
       The affected computers carry routine communications among
military officials, researchers and corporations.
       While some sensitive military data are involved, the nation's
most sensitive secret information, such as that on the control of
nuclear weapons, is thought not to have been touched by the virus.
       Computer viruses are so named because they parallel in the
computer world the behavior of biological viruses. A virus is a
program, or a set of instructions to a computer, that is
deliberately planted on a floppy disk meant to be used with the
computer or introduced when the computer is communicating over
telephone lines or data networks with other computers.
       The programs can copy themselves into the computer's master
software, or operating system, usually without calling any
attention to themselves. From there, the program can be passed to
additional computers.
       Depending upon the intent of the software's creator, the program
might cause a provocative but otherwise harmless message to appear
on the computer's screen. Or it could systematically destroy data
in the computer's memory.
       The virus program was apparently the result of an experiment by
a computer science graduate student trying to sneak what he thought
was a harmless virus into the Arpanet computer network, which is
used by universities, military contractors and the Pentagon, where
the software program would remain undetected.
     A man who said he was an associate of the student said in a telephone
call to The New York Times that the experiment went awry because of a small
programming mistake that caused the virus to multiply around the military
network hundreds of times faster than had been planned.
       The caller, who refused to identify himself or the programmer,
said the student realized his error shortly after letting the
program loose and that he was now terrified of the consequences.
       A spokesman at the Pentagon's Defense Communications Agency,
which has set up an emergency center to deal with the problem, said
the caller's story was a ``plausible explanation of the events.''
       As the virus spread Wednesday night, computer experts began a
huge struggle to eradicate the invader.
       A spokesman for the Defense Communications Agency in Washington
acknowledged the attack, saying, ``A virus has been identified in
several host computers attached to the Arpanet and the unclassified
portion of the defense data network known as the Milnet.''
       He said that corrections to the security flaws exploited by the
virus are now being developed.
       The Arpanet data communications network was established in 1969
and is designed to permit computer researchers to share electronic
messages, programs and data such as project information, budget
projections and research results.
       In 1983 the network was split and the second network, called
Milnet, was reserved for higher-security military communications.
But Milnet is thought not to handle the most classified military
information, including data related to the control of nuclear
       The Arpanet and Milnet networks are connected to hundreds of
civilian networks that link computers around the globe.
       There were reports of the virus at hundreds of locations on both
coasts, including, on the East Coast, computers at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the
Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland and the University of
Maryland and, on the West Coast, NASA's Ames Research Center in
Mountain View, Calif.; Lawrence Livermore Laboratories; Stanford
University; SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif.; the University
of California's Berkeley and San Diego campuses and the Naval Ocean
Systems Command in San Diego.
       A spokesman at the Naval Ocean Systems Command said that its
computer systems had been attacked Wednesday evening and that the
virus had disabled many of the systems by overloading them. He said
that computer programs at the facility were still working on the
problem more than 19 hours after the original incident.
       The unidentified caller said the Arpanet virus was intended
simply to ``live'' secretly in the Arpanet network by slowly
copying itself from computer to computer. However, because the
designer did not completely understand how the network worked, it
quickly copied itself thousands of times from machine to machine.
     Computer experts who disassembled the program said that it was written
with remarkable skill and that it exploited three security flaws in the Arpanet
network.  [No. Actually UNIX] The virus' design included a program designed to
steal passwords, then masquerade as a legitimate user to copy itself to a
remote machine.
       Computer security experts said that the episode illustrated the
vulnerability of computer systems and that incidents like this
could be expected to happen repeatedly if awareness about computer
security risks was not heightened.
       ``This was an accident waiting to happen; we deserved it,'' said
Geoffrey Goodfellow,''(*) president of Anterior Technology Inc. and an
expert on computer communications.
       ``We needed something like this to bring us to our senses. We
have not been paying much attention to protecting ourselves.''
       Peter Neumann, a computer security expert at SRI International
Inc. in Menlo Park International, said: ``Thus far the disasters we
have known have been relatively minor. The potential for rather
extraordinary destruction is rather substantial.
     ``In most of the cases we know of, the damage has been immediately
evident. But if you contemplate the effects of hidden programs, you could
have attacks going on and you might never know it.''

  [* Following is Geoff's full quote ("exploitation"), which John only
  partially integrated with Geoff's earlier off-the-cuff comment ("accident"):

    "This was an exploitation wanting to happen.  We deserved it.  We needed
    something like this to bring us to our senses.  We have not been paying
    much attention to protecting ourselves.  The blame does not rest on the R&D
    community as a whole.  Look how many manufacturers [...] just took the
    original computer-science-department developed code willy-nilly, put their
    wrapper and corporate logo on it, and resold it to customers.  That's the
    real travesty here, we build these systems, OK, that's great, but we rarely
    build them and then ask how they might be abused, broken, or circumvented"
    {and then try to break them}.   ]

"Annals of Democracy -- Counting Votes" in the New Yorker

Daniel B Dobkin <DAN%Irving@VX1.GBA.NYU.EDU>
Thu 3 Nov 88 11:18:09-EDT
The current (7 November 88) issue of The New Yorker contains an article by
Ronnie Dugger on "Counting Votes" -- the spreading use of computerized vote
tabulation in jurisdictions around the country.  It confirms what we all know,
or should know: the unprecedented potential for fraud, let alone the very real
possibilities for "computer error", make this a giant step backwards for
democracy and universal suffrage.

A number of the "experts" interviewed admitted that the potential for fraud --
or outright stealing the election -- exists, but brushed it off with a
perfunctory, "I don't know of any cases yet where that has happened."  To my
mind, that is exactly the point: the fact that you don't know about it can just
as easily be cited to indicate that it HAS happened; after all, you aren't
SUPPOSED to know about it.

Other highlights of the article include interviews with Michael Shamos,
formerly of UniLogic (now Scribe Systems); and Peter Neumann, of SRI
International, the moderator of the RISKS digest.

Comments on the New Yorker article

Peter Neumann <>
Thu, 3 Nov 1988 22:18:11 PDT
For the record, in Ronnie Dugger's interview with me, we discussed at length
(1) the potential risks of using today's conventional computer system
technology in elections, and (2) what one might do to try to develop a system
that would avoid many of those risks -- although admittedly it could not be
perfect.  I presume that Howard Strauss (who is also quoted, and whose report
"Ensuring the Integrity of Electronic Elections" with Jon Edwards outlines what
they consider to be necessary procedural controls) also stressed his published
recommendations.  Apparently Dugger chose to emphasize the risks, and downplay
discussion of constructive design techniques and operational procedures.  He
does note that New York City is currently engaged in the competitive
procurement and development of a new system, but does not indicate that the
specified requirements (e.g., complete enchipment, no software [and
consequently no software modification], privacy, integrity, separation of
duties, extensive redundancy and cross-checking, reproducibility of results,
physical and electronic isolation, procedural controls, ...) are vastly more
stringent that anything that exists today.  So, perhaps the prospects for the
future are substantially more optimistic than he has portrayed.

Incidentally, "A Special Report on Computing and Elections", 11 pp., a joint
publication from ELECTION WATCH, a project of the Urban Policy Research
Institute, and from the CPSR/Portland Computer Voting Project, Computer
Professionals for Social Responsibility, is available from either CPSR, PO Box
717, Palo Alto CA 94301, 415-322-3778, or UPRI, 530 Paseo Miramar, Pacific
Palisades CA 90272, 213-459-4982.  In addition, papers by Wilcox and Nilsson
and by Strauss and Edwards are available for $5 (for both) from CPSR.  The full
report by Strauss and Edwards is available from Howard Strauss, 116 Prospect
Ave., Princeton NJ 08544 for $8.  Costs are for copying, handling, and postage
only.  [I have previously noted reports by Roy G. Saltman and by Lance J.
Hoffman in RISKS-7.52.]

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