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... Preface -- 1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4 -- 5 -- 6 -- 7 -- 8 -- 9 -- A -- B -- C -- Refs Front -- Contents -- Help
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Copyright 1999 Gary McGraw and Edward Felten. All rights reserved. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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Malicious Applets: Avoiding a Common Nuisance
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CHAPTER SECTIONS: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8 / 9
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Section 1 -- What Is a Malicious Applet
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A malicious applet is any applet that attacks the local system of a Web surfer using one of the three lessserious classes of attacks discussed in 2. Malicious applets involve denial of service, invasion of privacy, and/or annoyance. Malicious applets are written by researchers, crackers, and Net miscreants to harass, annoy, and damage Java users. They can even seriously damage a Java user's machine. Any applet that performs an action against the will of the user who invoked it should be considered malicious. It is important to emphasize again that use of the term Java user applies equally to Java developers and people surfing the Web with a Java-enabled browser. Using Java does not require any programming, or even possession of the JDK; it is enough to use a Java-enabled browser. Under this definition, most people who surf the Web with Java on are Java users. Malicious applets exist on the Web today that do the following bad things:
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Forge mail from you to whomever the evil applet's author chooses, saying whatever they wish while masquerading as you Steal your CPU cycles to perform their own work while your legitimate processes languish Crash your local system by using all available system resources
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These activities are both impressive and daunting, and we have only scratched the surface. There are also malicious applets created simply to annoy. These applets go only a bit too far, lingering at the edge of respectability. These sorts of applets do things like play sound files continuously, set up threads that monitor your Web use, and display unwanted graphics on your screen.
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Stopping Malicious Applets before They Start
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What can be done to stop malicious applets from doing their evil deeds The best alternative now is to set a security policy that allows only applets signed by trusted parties to run. But if you want to surf with a Java-enabled browser and run every Java applet you come across on the Web, the safest thing to do is to avoid unknown and untrusted Web sites unless you first disable Java. Just by using a Java-enabled browser to surf the Web, you are open to attack by both attack applets and malicious applets. This danger, combined with the serious attacks discussed in 5, has caused the CERT Coordination Center to recommend disabling Java when surfing untrusted sites [CERT, 1996a; CERT, 1996b]. What can be done to stop these applets from doing their evil deeds in the future There are many possibilities. One interesting approach would be to write detectors for bad applets based on known vulnerabilities. That way, they could be screened out by the byte code Verifier (or some similar extension). Princeton's Secure Internet Programming team has investigated this possibility extensively, and research at Reliable Software Technologies continues. (It turns out that the problem is harder than it may seem on first consideration.) A number of commercial enterprises now sell products that claim to screen byte code for malicious characteristics. We investigate these products in 6, "Securing Java: Improvements, Solutions, and Snake Oil." Another way to protect against malicious applets is by improving Java's security model. To the extent that any holes identified by researchers have been quickly and thoroughly patched, the security model can be said to be improving. However, the practice of patching software after exploits have been demonstrated is backwards. This unfortunately common strategy is known as penetrate and patch, and has been criticized for many years by security practitioners. (For more on this issue, see [McGraw, 1998].) Better software engineering and more thorough software assurance practices are much more appealing. It is even possible to write your own code defensively so it makes a much harder target for bad guys to attack (see both the guidelines of 7, "Java Security Guidelines: Developing and Using Java More Securely," and 9, "The Future of Java Security: Challenges Facing Mobile Code"). The addition of code signing to Java in JDK 1.1 and its extension with access control in Java 2 allow for the creation of complex security policies based on authentication of applet signers. Using this technology, a Web surfer could specify a list of trusted sites whose applets should be allowed to run without restrictions. The trick is creating a sound security policy and correctly coding it into your browser. The next few sections discuss various kinds of malicious applets. Starting with the least worrisome category-the merely annoying-the text progresses through the truly malicious machine-hangers. Possible motives for creating these applets are discussed along the way. Keep in mind while you read this chapter that the malicious applets described here pale in comparison with the attack applets described in 5. Fortunately, the security researchers who discovered those vulnerabilities are the good guys.
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