Viruses, Malware Creeping into Online Games

Viruses and malware are words not normally linked to video games, that is until you talk to Michael Helander, VP of Sales and Marketing at Lavasoft. His software company has developed a new product, Ad-Aware Game Edition, that's designed to protect online gamers from viruses, a problem that's "increased over 600% in the last year," according to their website. In this exclusive interview, Helander and Malware Labs' Andrew Browne explained which games are most vulnerable to malware attacks, why viruses in online games is a much bigger problem today, and why consoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3 could be next in the crosshairs of people who create Trojans, worms and other forms of malware.

GP: What makes Lavasoft's online gaming protection software different from regular internet protection software? Don't all anti-virus programs essentially do the same thing?

Lavasoft: The difference is the way our virus protection software behaves. When you're playing video games, our antivirus program silently runs off screen, using minimum levels of your computer's resources, and does so without interrupting your game.

Now here is the key: blocking detection is not suspended when someone starts gaming with the Ad-Aware Game Edition, but alternatively the handling of blocks and removal of malware is taken over directly by Lavasoft. Competitor products (there are two or three other products like this on market today) actually say that the protection is "suspended" while playing video games. This is not good for gamers.

GP: What are some of the most common video games that get attacked by malware and viruses?

Lavasoft: Some of the most commonly attacked games are World of Warcraft, Lineage, Lineage 2, Perfect World, RuneScape, ROHAN Online, Seal Online, Lord of the Rings, Maple Story, Reign of Revolution, Talesweaver, and ZodiacOnline.

The growth of malware targeting online games has risen in parallel with the growth of the online games market. The number of online gamers in China alone is predicted to reach 65 million by the end of 2009 making online games a huge and profitable attack surface for malware creators.

GP: On your website it says that within the last year online games becoming infected by viruses has increased over 600%. Why do you think there was such a dramatic increase?

Lavasoft: Money. Online gamers devote time upgrading their characters, collecting items, gold and so on. Improving your character involves hours and days of play and some gamers would prefer to take shortcuts rather than enjoying the experience, which any avid gamer would find strange.

Virtual characters and virtual objects have taken on value in the real world where they can be bought and sold for real money. A thriving underground black market demonstrates that a significant amount of people are prepared to pay for them. Malware creators simply recognize the opportunity for profit and have set about exploiting online games.

GP: When someone's unprotected online gaming account, say for World of Warcraft, gets compromised by someone hijacking their account, what kind of harm can they cause?

Lavasoft: The biggest problem is the selling of virtual goods from the account for real money, which might be tricky to get back even after appealing to the game's administrators. The character's equipment is in some ways like a trophy cabinet representing the achievements of the player in the game, which makes the loss emotional as well as financial.

As a further consequence of the hacking, the account can also get suspended which might prevent the player from playing the game for a time, something that can have social consequences since the player might have obligations as a member of a guild or another player-run organization (such as organizing and running raids) and as a result might face demotion or even exclusion from the guild for not fulfilling their duties. There are several articles that give a fairly good overview of the consequences of account hacking, such as this one on Hacking World of Warcraft and another from the user's perspective titled My World of Warcraft Account Got Hacked.

GP: What do you think motivates people to create viruses? Is it strictly about money or are there people out there with more malicious intentions?

Lavasoft: To be clear, the term "virus" is often used as the generic term for what should correctly be referred to as malware (malicious software) in today's Internet world. Viruses are by nature simply annoyances, but the financial loss is relatively low, while other forms of malware including spyware are developed and distributed with one intent: to financially capitalize at the end of the day.

Whether that comes through direct keylogging activities that steal passwords and allow entry to bank accounts and more, or through blackmail ransoms for corporate sensitive databases hijacked by hackers. It comes in different forms, but the intent is the same, financial gain. It is the modern day mafia.

GP: Can Lavasoft's Ad-Aware Game Edition protect against malware 100% of the time?

Lavasoft: Absolutely and unequivocally the answer is no! While that may shock your readers, we want them to understand that there is not a single security software on the market today that can protect against malware 100% of the time.

Current reports say there are up to 40,000 new malware applications distributed daily around the world. New malware mutations arrive daily based on advancing technologies and methodologies for malware delivery methods. Lavasoft has been saying for years that it is okay to use multiple security products, and it was repeated recently in a keynote speech at the RSA conference in London, annual conferences on cryptography and information security held in the US, Europe and Japan.

That's why we design our software not to conflict with other security software -- because we do believe and endeavor to educate consumers that the modern computer user needs a multi-layered approach to best manage their cyber security.

GP: Do you think that online games for the Xbox 360, PS3, and Nintendo Wii could become potential targets for malware and viruses?

Lavasoft: There have been reports of Xbox Live accounts being hacked, although this has been the result of an attacker deploying social engineering techniques to find information out about the victim in order to guess their password or the answer to the "secret question" account recovery feature rather than the exploitation of system vulnerabilities. That said, where money can be made by stealing account information and trading character attributes, it is reasonable to assume that these platforms could at some point attract the attention of the bad guys.

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