Sober worm may run amuck tonight

Better a sober worm than a drunken one, right?

Well not in this case.

The next variant of the Sober worm is set to attack computers already infected by previous versions of the malware at the stroke of midnight GMT as Jan. 5 turns into Jan. 6, according to antivirus software vendors.

The worm has been around since 2004, propagating itself by infiltrating e-mail address books and spewing out Nazi propaganda to users’ contacts.

“We anticipate the virus will reawaken itself,” says Randy Fougere, senior director of marketing at Toronto-based Fusepoint, a managed IT services provider.

“There are millions of computers where the malware is lying dormant.” The best way for IT managers to protect their networks is to ensure they have antivirus software, says Fougere. “IT folks should ensure they have the latest version of antivirus software installed.”

Another security measure is to get a list of the domains that trigger the Sober worm. “These domains can be blocked from networks,” says Fougere.

He advises IT folk to also implement patches for Sober available from Microsoft, McAfee, and Symantec, but notes that it is becoming increasingly difficult for over-stretched staff to keep up with an escalating number of viruses and fixes. “Often the patch is out there, but the average patch deployment process in larger companies in Canada is anywhere from two to four weeks.”

Security experts aren’t sure what the scale of damage will be this time. Given that both Internet service providers and law enforcement are closely monitoring Web sites likely to be used in the attack, some believe the hacker may choose not to engage in any malicious activity this time around.

“Nothing’s posted yet [on the Web sites],” Carole Theriault, senior security consultant with Sophos PLC in the U.K., said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s possible he may stay well clear.” Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer for F-Secure Corp. in Finland, agreed with Theriault.

“It’s more likely he’ll lay low than engage in activation,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. Nevertheless, the companies and their peers around the world are keeping a close eye on the situation in case the hacker does choose to launch an attack.

The last major Sober attack, Sober-Z, occurred in late November. At one point, an estimated one in 14 e-mails on the Internet carried it, according to Sophos. Previous Sober variants have turned users’ computers into “spam machines,” spewing out right-wing German propaganda, according to Theriault.

The upcoming attack could be something that “makes a big song and dance on machines or something very subtle,” she added. Hypponen warned that it’s possible with all the interest centering around the likely timing of the attack that the hacker may opt to delay any malicious activity for a little while until the attention dies down.

The Sober worm variants are written in both German and English; the German propaganda only spreads to e-mail inboxes with a .de address and is “invisible to the rest of the world,” Hypponen said. While most hackers produce malware for some kind of monetary benefit, the Sober author appears interested in only two things — working towards his next attack and releasing his propaganda — according to Hypponen

Many of the previous Sober variants have spread by appearing to be e-mails from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation or the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency or other law enforcement agencies or offers of video clips of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, stars of U.S. reality TV show “The Simple Life.” After malicious code in an attachment is executed, the worm spreads by sending itself to other e-mail addresses contained on the infected PC.

Hypponen doesn’t hold out much hope that this time around authorities will catch the hacker, whom he refers to as “a lone gunman,” mostly likely resident in Germany or Austria.

During November’s Sober-Z attack, authorities had the same kind of information they have this time in terms of the likely Web sites the hacker would go to, but he escaped detection. “He’s been playing a game of cat and mouse [with the authorities] for over two years,” Hypponen said. “I really do hope they’ll be able to track him down.”

Back in December, iDefense Inc. broke the encrypted code in a variant of the Sober worm and discovered that Jan. 5, 2006, was the date set for the variant to download unknown pieces of code from various Web addresses. The date coincides with the 87th anniversary of the founding of the precursor to the Nazi Party.

Hypponen notes that there were initial conflicting reports about the exact timing of the attack putting it during Jan. 5 GMT, but he said that F-Secure researchers have double-checked the exact date and, according to the Sober code, activation of any malware is due to occur after Jan. 5.

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