Malware is less concerned about virtual machines

Symantec finds most malware doesn't quit if it runs on VM, which used to be a sign it was being analyzed

Many malicious software programs used to make a quick exit on virtual machines, a tactic designed to avoid a security check. But that isn't the case anymore, according Symantec research.

As companies increasingly use VMs in operational environments, malware writers are largely trying other methods to avoid detection. It means that simply running VMs won't be enough to scare away malware.

Symantec studied 200,000 malware samples submitted by its customers since 2012. It ran the samples on a VM and a non-VM machine to see which ones would stop working when a VM was detected.

Just 18 percent of malware programs studied stop executing when a VM is detected, wrote Candid Wueest, a threat researcher, in a blog post Tuesday.

"Malware authors want to compromise as many systems as possible, so if malware does not run on a VM, it limits the number of computers it could compromise," Wueest wrote. "So, it should not come as a surprise that most samples today will run normally on a virtual machine."

One trick employed by malware to avoid being booted from a VM by security software is to simply wait, Symantec's report said.

If a new file doesn't act suspicious in the first five or ten minutes, systems will likely decided it is harmless. Other types of malware will wait for a certain number of left mouse clicks before decrypting themselves and launching their payload, Wueest wrote.

"This can make it difficult or impossible for an automated system to come to an accurate conclusion about the malware in a short time frame," according to the report.

The fear is that malware will make its way back to the virtual machines' hosting server. That was the mission of the "Crisis" malware, a Java file distributed through social engineering which ran on Windows and Apple's OS X.

Crisis tried to spread to virtual machines that were stored on a local server, Symantec wrote. It didn't exploit a vulnerability but capitalized on virtual systems simply being a series of files on a host server. A similar style of attack called "Cloudburst" was found in 2009.

Overall, the change in tactics is better for security researchers, since most malware will continue to run and might be detected on a VM. But Symantec advised that to not miss the 18 percent of malware that will quit, real physical hardware should be used in analyses.

For those concerned about VMs, Symantec recommended hardening host servers, vigilant patching of VMs and using antimalware defenses.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags symantecsecuritymalware

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?