Finding Contextual Clues to Malware

 Using a Large Corpus

Neil C. Rowe

Dept. of Computer Science

U.S. Naval Postgraduate School

Monterey, California, USA


Abstract— Identification of malware is a critical problem in computer security.  Many signature-identification, behavior-recognition, and reputation-based tools are available for host-based detection.  However, so many files are present on systems today that checking all files is time-consuming, and better methods are needed to suggest which files are of highest priority to check in partial scans.  This work developed and tested local contextual clues to malware in the metadata of file systems on an international corpus of 248 million files on 3961 drives.  398,949 hash values of malware were found in this corpus using five methods, and 3,681,211 hash values of non-malware were chosen for comparison using three methods.  Malware identification rates were compared for the fifteen combinations and were cross-correlated for different types of drives and file types.  Results showed that different malware identification methods find significantly different things.  Then the strength of particular local clues in file metadata (directory and file names, sizes, times, and hash values) was assessed and results were compared for the fifteen combinations.  Some classic clues (e.g. rare file extensions and deletion status) were confirmed and others were not (e.g. double extensions and occurrence in the operating system).  With this data, a program was implemented to estimate the likelihood that a given file was malware based solely on its metadata context.  With three random subsets of our corpus, our methods gave 5.1 times better precision (fraction of malware in files identified as malware) with 70% better recall (fraction of malware detected) than the approach of inspecting executables alone.  They also ran significantly faster than signature checking, and can be used before other kinds of malware analysis.

This paper appeared in the Proc. of Third Intl. Workshop on Security and Forensics in Communications Systems, Larnaca, Cyprus, July 2015.

Keywords—malware; context; clues; testing; hashes

                                                                                                                                                             I.     Introduction

Identification of malware files and packets is a key task in information security.  Most methods rely on signature checking [1, 2, 3] or behavioral analysis [4, 5].  The major disadvantages of signature checking are that clever malware authors can vary their code to have new signatures, and totally new malware cannot be recognized.  The major disadvantages of behavioral observation are that clever malware authors can camouflage behavior so it cannot be recognized, and the malware may already have done damage by the time it is recognized.  This suggests that methods for identifying the likelihood that malware will occur in a given context could be useful.  Internet packets provide some context such as protocol and source address to permit blacklisting, and some anti-malware products attempt to assign “reputation” to unknown files by this origin information or by frequency of occurrence [6].  But this requires knowledge that is not always available and, as advertisers know, it is not hard to buy a reputation.

Less has been explored with the context of files in file systems.  Storage capacities are so large on computer systems today that it slows operating systems to do repeated full scans for signatures or behavior (it typically requires four hours for signature checking on an older workstation).  It is helpful to set priorities and check the most suspicious files first.  Many systems have “quick scans” that claim to check just the most critical files for malware, e.g. [7], but their criteria have rarely been subjected to careful testing.

Contextual clues that could be useful are measures of atypicality or deception associated with the file.  Atypicality could be in the contents, locations, or times compared to other similar files in a large corpus.  Deception could be obfuscation such as odd characters in the path name or file contents inconsistent with the file extension.  Then any files matching the clues could be subjected to detailed signature and behavioral analysis.  Such clues could indicate new malware whose signatures are as yet unknown.  Surprisingly little work has been done on this idea with host-based data. 

                                                                                                                            II.    Obtaining Malware for Testing

A corpus-based big-data approach appears to be a good way to obtain contextual clues.  A broad and realistic corpus is central to this research since it allows evaluation of the success of malware clues on data that users are likely to encounter, not just theoretical threats [8].  It is also important to examine realistic files in realistic contexts because the two go together; while there are a number of malware collections, they generally fail to provide the context in which the files were found because of privacy and data-size concerns.  Also, malware collections generally fail to provide frequency information for their malware, information necessary for cost-benefit analysis of threat clues.  The pioneering work of [9] suggests that useful statistics can be obtained from large samples of ordinary files.  Malware is relatively rare, so samples are needed of millions of files to see patterns.   Diversity of the machines sampled is also important for useful results [10].  Corpus-based approaches are popular and powerful in many areas of computer science, but are relatively rare for information-security problems and deserve to be explored.

 The experiments reported here used a corpus of 248,829,846 files on 3,961 drives including data from about 83 million files of the Real Data Corpus [11], as well as 161 million files at our school obtained by inventorying several hundred classroom and laboratory computer drives (having no private user files), 3 million files obtained from a research sponsor, and 1 million files from our personal computers.  The Real Data Corpus consists of drives purchased as used equipment in 36 countries over the last 20 years; the school computers were accessed in 2014.  While there are more files from our school than any other source, their rate of malware was low, so they did not bias the positive clues very much.  The entire corpus came from computers and devices used for normal purposes; none had been deliberately infected with malware, and none had been used as honeypots, both of which could create atypical malware patterns.  Compressed archives (zip, rar, cab, gzip, etc.) were expanded when possible and analysis done on their subfiles. The following methods were used to identify malware:

·     Files in our corpus whose SHA-1 hash values were tagged as “high threat” (level 10) and “low threat” (level 5) in the database of the Bit9 Forensic Service (  This analysis appears to be signature-based.

·     Files in our corpus whose SHA-1 hash values were tagged as one of the “vulnerable software” categories in Bit9 (levels 1, 2, 3, and 4).  These are not malware but provided a necessary comparison to the other sources.

·     Files in our corpus whose computed hash values matched those of malicious software in the Open Malware corpus ( of about 3 million files.

·     Files in our corpus whose computed hash values matched those of malicious software in the VirusShare database ( of about 18 million files, after mapping its MD5 hash values to SHA-1.

·     Files identified as threats by Symantec antivirus software ( in a sample of files extracted from the corpus.  The sample was downloaded to a home computer with the antivirus software installed, and every file that Symantec complained about was recorded.  Only a sample could be tested because the corpus is too big to store online and extraction of files is time-consuming. The sample included about 300,000 random files plus 30,000 embedded files of type zip, gzip, cab, 7z, and bz2 because of their higher fraction of malware.  Also included were 7,331 files from the Open Malware corpus whose hashcodes matched those of our corpus files, of which only 721 were flagged as malicious by Symantec. 

·     Files identified as threats by ClamAV open-source antivirus software ( in the same sample of files tested by Symantec.

    It is important to note that these malware methods do not just examine executables.  They identified 26,111 executables as malicious but also 41,540 graphics files, 29,378 source files, 24,498 Web files, 18,022 operating-system files, and 14.254 files with no extension.  Executables were only 6.5% of the files identified as malware.  All the methods found significant numbers of non-executables.

     All these methods except Bit9 identified the empty file as malicious.  This is unreasonable, as are any files of size five bytes or less being malicious, since there is no room to put malware in them (even malicious URLs need more than 5 bytes) and the odds of an accidental coincidence with a legitimate file in our 108,013 files 1-5 bytes in length are high.  So we excluded all files five bytes or less, which covered 64 distinct hash values. The result was 398,949 distinct hash values for 1,772,961 allegedly malicious files in our corpus according to at least one malware method.

 We also collected nonmalicious hash values (“whitelists”) to compare the malicious files against.  We tested four sets:

·     The set of files explicitly whitelisted by Bit9 on our corpus, those it marked as safe or type 0, minus those identified as malware by any of our five methods.

·     The June 2014 version of the National Software Reference Library Reference Data Set (NSRL RDS, giving commonly seen software hash values, mostly those of software and its support files, minus those identified as malware by any of our five methods.  Its documentation explicitly states it does not try to exclude malware.  However, its methodology of purchasing and installing recognized software does tend to exclude malware, as was later confirmed.

·     A random sample of our corpus minus those identified as malware by any of our five methods.  Unlike the first two, this set included a significant number of user files.  It likely included unrecognized malware but the number of such files is likely too low to influence analysis results, judging by the rate of infection of malware which we did identify.

·     A random sample of the union of the above whitelist sets.  A sample was necessary because from the above three sets we had 78 times more whitelist data than blacklist data.

Hash values were excluded from the malware lists if they appeared in any of the whitelist sets, and hash values were excluded from the whitelist sets if they appeared in any of the malware sets; the reasoning was that anything with contradictory evidence represents a poor example for either category.  This was termed “cleaning” the hash-value sets.  It is however not perfect in eliminating malware since undiscovered malware could still be present in the whitelist sets.  Altogether we extracted 3,316,443 distinct hash values for both the malware and whitelist sets, which matched 128 million of the 249 million files in our corpus.

Table I shows the counts of intersections between these hash sets.  The first number represents the counts on the raw hashcodes obtained, and the second number represents the counts after cleaning.    As mentioned, Bit9 was run on the

Table I. Intersection counts of whitelist and blacklist hash sets for files; first number is before cleaning and second number is after.  BW = Bit9 whitelist of our corpus, NW = NSRL matches to our corpus as a whitelist, RW = random corpus whitelist, BT = Bit9 identified threats in our corpus, BV = Bit9 identified vulnerabilities in our corpus, OM = Open Malware corpus in our corpus, VS = VirusShare corpus in our corpus, SM = Symantec Endpoint Protection on a sample of our coprus, CA = ClamAv Antivirus on a sample of our corpus.















































































































entire corpus, but Symantec and ClamAV were run on only a sample.  Note these counts are of hash values, not files, and the number of times a hash value occurred could vary significantly; one hash value for an autorun.inf file occurred 14,401 times in the corpus, and 195 hash values occurred at least 100 times.

As a quick check of whether the unique malware identified by each malware hash set was valid, the full paths in our corpus were examined for a sample of hash values.  No obvious mistakes were apparent in what was identified, though VirusShare found a good number of suspicious files under Agilent, Cygwin, and various mobile-device applications that could be arguable.

The most common malware in terms of number of drives infected were an UNWISE.EXE spyware variant with SHA-1 hash value  3C4735750C99C63E6861170A8C459A608 594211 (579 drives), an external_extensions.json settings file (401 drives), a CPLUt164.exe driver variant (291 drives), a pndx5016.exe Windows operating-system executable (290 drives), a googletalk.exe variant (267 drives), a yupdater.exe variant (246 drives), an alcwzrd.exe driver variant (242 drives), an alcmtr.exe variant (241 drives), a SoundMan.exe variant (236 occurrences), and a msfeedssync.exe variant (214 drives).    7908 distinct malware hashcodes occurred on at least ten drives.  This suggests that it is important not to exclude files during a malware investigation that occur frequently (a key factor in file “reputation”) since some infections are widespread.

Overall, there was surprisingly little overlap between malicious hash values identified by the malware methods.  Of the 398,949 unique malware hash values found by all methods, only 1,025 occurred in two or more hash sets.  Modeling this as random sampling with replacement suggests that the total number of malware instances in our corpus should be at least 30 times the number found, or around 10 million hash values. 

Consistent with the results of [12] on a smaller and less representative set of files, our results support the conclusion that the five malware-identification methods are looking for different kinds of things.  Note that the hypothesis that some malware methods include files that merely contain vulnerabilities rather than exploits is not supported by the data in the BV (Bit9 vulnerability) column, since there was very little overlap between Bit9’s vulnerable set and the malicious hash sets.  Note also while some malware may be more dangerous than others, it is difficult a priori to identify the most dangerous since malware can spread from many types of files to more dangerous locations, so we count everything identified as malware equally.

The drives came from several sources, so it is useful to break down malware occurrence by type of drive.  The categories were those from our school, those from the Real Data Corpus, those from mobile devices including those in the Real Data Corpus, those from Microsoft Windows systems, and those embedded in archive files.  Table II shows comparative malware identification rates for different types of drives.  Two numbers are given in each entry: the fraction of hash values identified as malicious in all the hash values observed for the data source, and the fraction of files identified as having malicious hash values of all files of the data source.  Infection rates were seen to be on the order of 1 in 10,000 for the malware-identification methods with the exception of the VirusShare data and mobile-device files: VirusShare identified long lists of files in mobile applications as malicious, which seems unlikely.

                                                                                                       III.   Evaluating Contextual Clues to Malware

A variety of static local contextual clues to malware files were tested.  Some are based on our previous work in identifying generally suspicious files, and some are new.  The clues were:

·     File name

·     File size

·     Depth (level) of the file in the directory hierarchy

·     Whether file was deleted on the drive on which it occurs

·     File extension

·     First two directories in file path (top-level directories, ignoring computer name if given)

Table ii.  Rates of malware occurrence in subsets of our corpus, measured as fraction of distinct hashcodes whose hash value matched a malware hash value (first number) and fraction of files that did (second number).


Bit9 threats

in our corpus

Bit9 identified

vulnerable in

our corpus

Open Malware

corpus in

our corpus


corpus in

our corpus

Symantec Endpoint

Protection on

corpus sample


Antivirus on corpus sample















Real Data

























































All drives














·     Last directory in file path (immediate directory containing the file)

·     Class out of 45 of file extension, using our taxonomy of 11,381 extensions

·     Class out of 12 of first two directories in file path, using our taxonomy of 3,662 top-level directories

·     Class out of 21 of last directory in file path, using our taxonomy of 8,909 immediate directories

·     Whether the file is a registry file (suggested by [13])

·     Whether the creation time was atypical for the file’s directory, defined as not being within a minute in which at least 50 files in the directory were created.  Last-modification times were not used because they often are times at the software vendor, and last-access times were not used because many normal directories have a few files that are accessed frequently.

·     Whether there were at least 10 different file names for the file’s hash value (which suggests concealment attempts)

·     Whether the hash value is rare  (defined as occurring only once)

·     Whether the file extension was compatible with its header and tail (magic-number) classification

·     Whether the file extension is rare (defined as occurring only once)

·     Whether the file extension is known to be used for encryption (270 such extensions were identified)

·     Whether the file extension is listed by under the category “dangerous and malicious” and does not have primarily legitimate uses like “dll”, “exe”, and “chm”

·     Whether the file extension is double and the last part is not a conventionally used double extension.  The conventionally used ones we assumed were “mui”, “manifest”,  “lnk”, “url”, “log”, “bak”, “backup”, “copy”, “new”, “orig”, “last”, “sav”, “save”, “sorted”, “mno”, ‘resx”, “prepare”, “install_backup”, “mdmp”, “config”, “dll”, “blf”, “doc”, “obj”, “dmp”, and “?”.

·     Whether a double file extension conceals an executable

·     Whether the file extension is 10 characters or longer

·     Whether there were excessive punctuation characters: either one at the front of a directory name other than “$” or “~”, five or more punctuation characters in the path, or punctuation characters in more than 10% of the path

·     Whether there was a clear misspelling in the path words, comparing to our large multilingual dictionary including computer terms and many compound words.  The proposed misspelled word must occur 20 times or fewer times than a word in our dictionary.

·     Whether the file extension forms a word with the filename but the filename alone is not a word, e.g. “installat.ion” (we saw this trick in some malware)

·     Whether there was a repeated pattern of 3-8 characters occurring at least three times in the path characters (we saw this trick to create new file names in some malware)

·     Whether the file name before the extension was numeric

·     Whether the file name before the extension was the letter “A” followed by a number

·     Whether the file name before the extension was hexadecimal rendered in digits and letters

·     Creation time

·     Modification time

·     Access time

The malicious file sets were compared to the nonmalicious file sets in regard to each of these clues.  We measured the significance of the clue by the number of standard deviations greater than its rate of occurrence predicted by a binomial distribution.  This significance value is positive for positive clues and negative for negative clues.  Following standard

Table III. Comparative significance of miscellaneous clues in identifying malware files.

Malware set


Open Malware




Total count in corpus identified as malicious











Total count in corpus identified as nonmalicious











File size 0 or 1






Rounded log file size = 5






Rounded log file size = 10






Rounded log file size = 15






Level = 1






Level = 5






Level = 10






Level = 15






Deleted file






Extension/ libmagic







Odd creation time






Rare hash value













Double extension






Long extension






Encryption extension






Odd characters in path






Repeated pattern in path






Misspelling in path







practice, we ignored clues with significance values between    -3.0 and +3.0.  But as with other bursty digital data such as network traffic, significance values well in excess of this were frequently observed.

We calculated significance in two ways, for number of malicious files and number of distinct malicious hash values.  The significance was often quite different for each; for instance, we saw whole directories of files with names of popular games but with the same malicious hash value.  Significance in terms of number of files is important in addressing the most common threats, and significance in terms of number of distinct hash values is important in addressing novel or recently-appearing threats.  An information-security manager will likely act, consciously or not, according to a weighted average of the two significance factors since people when faced with two important numerical objectives tend take a weighted average. 

Tables III and IV show the comparative results for the clues on the sets of malware, using in each case as whitelist the random-sample consensus mentioned above.  After the first two rows of Table III, numbers are significance values measured in standard deviations.  The first number in each row is for all files matching the malicious hash values, and the second number after the slash is for a single randomly chosen representative of each hash value.

We only show results for clues that demonstrated significance according to at least one malicious hash set.  For instance, clues related to the recency of creation, access, and modification times provided no significant help at all, and no registry files in our corpus matched any of the malicious hashcodes (apparently there are far too many variations on registry files).

Table IV uses the file-type classification based on file extension that was mentioned above.  Again the table only shows file types which showed strength in predicting malware for at least one set of malicious hash values, which excluded some common types such as graphics, temporaries, Web pages, documents, spreadsheets, audio, logs, configuration files, and game-related files.

As for more detail of the malware rates as a function of file size and file level, the logarithm of one plus the file size showed peaks for 3-5 and again at 12-15 (the peak at 19 is based on too little data to be significant), and the file directory level showed a significant peak for 7-9 (meaning paths consisting of 6-8 directories plus a file name).  (One was added to the file size to avoid a logarithm of zero for the many zero-sized files.)  Creation times are probably the best measure of trends, and malware rates were clearly increasing in recent years, though there is significant yearly variation.  Peaks in 1980 and 1985 probably represent default times.

It can be seen there is considerable disagreement between the malware methods as to the good clues.  Overall the best clues were file size, files at top level of the directory structure, deleted files, rare hash values (consistent with reputation-

Table IV. Comparative significance of important positive file-type clues in identifying malware files.  In left column, E=extension, T=top-level directory, and I=immediate directory of a file.

Malware set


Open Malware




E: None






E: Photograph






E: Link






E: Video






E: Executable






E: Drive image






E: Query






E: Installation






E: Networking






E: Hardware






E: Engineering






E: Miscellaneous






T: Root






T: Hardware






T: Temporaries






T: Games






T: Miscellaneous






I: Operating system






I: Backup






I: Audio






I: Data






I: Security






I: Games






I: Miscellaneous







based systems), rare extensions, double extensions, long extensions, repeated patterns in the file path, photograph extensions, executable extensions, query extensions, installation extensions, miscellaneous extensions under 100 occurrences, audio directories, security directories, and game directories. But there were also significant peaks (Fig. 1) in the fraction of malicious files for 16 drives and 296 drives that were higher than that for 1 drive (drive-unique hashes), so popularity of a hash value is no guarantee of safety.

Particular extensions, directories, and file names that were significant malware clues were also identified.  These included some familiar suspects.  For the Bit9-flagged data, the most suspicious file names were autorun.inf (19522 significance), autorun.exe (51.8), _utorun.inf (6925), install.exe (93.2), patch.exe (65.6), zvregmon.exe (250.8), flashget.exe (115.3), keygen.exe (395.1), adminserver.dll (180.8), and setup.ini (25.7).

Effects of the whitelist choice for malware clues were also compared for the four whitelists (including the consensus one) described in section 2. This had less effect than varying the blacklists since only 13 rows of the 34 rows shown in Tables III and IV had significant disagreements in the sign of any clue strength, so the consensus whitelist values are probably the best guide to malware clue strength.

                                                                                                                    IV.   Reducing the Time to Find Malware

One use of these results is to reduce the amount of time needed to find malware on a system.  Malware could hide anywhere, but our conditional probabilities enable us to rank its likelihood from context.  This is useful in designing partial “quick scans” for malware.

To test this, the set of hash values in our corpus was split randomly.  Files were found corresponding to the two half-sets of hash values, about 124 million files each.  Conditional probabilities for the clues discussed above were calculated and converted into odds for one half of the corpus.  Additional clues that were tested were the actual file extension, top-level



Fig. 1. Fraction of malware vs. number of drives on which a hash value appears (1-350 drives, highest peak 0.08 at 16 drives).




directory, bottom-level directory, and file name.  Clues relating to the times of the file were excluded, however, because prediction is the goal and there is no guarantee that current time patterns will reoccur.  Clues were only included if they occurred at least R times and were significant at a level greater than 2.0 standard deviations above or below the expected value.  Clues were then assessed for each file in the other half of the corpus.  Combined assessment was calculated using a normalization of the Naïve Bayes odds formula:

Here M means “file was malicious” and C means clue.  Odds were calculated with Laplace-smoothing constant K:

Here n means count, M means “file is malicious”, O means “file is nonmalicious”, and K is a constant that needs to be set.  Normalization was necessary because files varied in the number of significant clues they presented.

The two constants R and K need to be optimized.  R represents the threshold for reliable counts on clues, and K represents the “background noise” of the clue.  We did experiments on a different random sample of 30% of our corpus to vary R and K.  Results in terms of F-score are shown in Table V.  The best values appeared to be R=15 and K=30, so these were used in subsequent experiments.

To test our ability to rank malware, we set 100 evenly spaced threshold values on the combined odds and calculated recall (fraction of malware over the threshold) and precision (fraction of files identified as malware that were actually malware).  Recall is important because a high value reduces the need and rate of doing full scans for malware, but precision is important too since a low value requires more files to be scanned of those found.  So F-score (the harmonic mean of recall and precision) was used as the objective function for optimization.  Malware was defined by our consensus list of malicious hashcodes which was the union of the results of the five malware-identification methods.

We conducted this experiment three times on three random partitions of our corpus (with a total of 612,818 instances of malware and 128,776,919 instances of non-malware for training), using one half for training and one half for testing.  The recall values were 0.343, 0.305 and 0.333; the precision values were 0.213, 0.211, and 0.211; and the resulting F-scores were 0.263, 0.249, and 0.259.  So there was not much

Table V. Effects of varying R (minimum count) and K (damping constant) on malware F-score.



























variation in the results, and this tends to support the generality of our corpus for training purposes.  But if one is willing to accept a much lower precision of 0.010 with our methods, we can obtain a better recall of 0.650.  By comparison, selecting only the executable files gave .005 precision (for 22,940,397 executables total) and 0.190 recall (for 116,235 malicious executables) for an F-score of 0.0097.  Hence our methods give 5.1 times better precision with 1.7 times better recall over inspecting executables alone.  Similarly, selecting only the files in operating-system top-level directories gave 0.003 precision and 0.189 recall, and selecting only the files in applications top-level directories gave 0.00031 precision and 0.056 recall, so searching for malware in preferred directories is an even poorer strategy.  A possible objection is that malware in executables, the operating system, and applications directories is more serious than in other places, but this is questionable since software loads from many kinds of files today.

Our clues are straightforward to compute, and can be done on a drive once upon setup, then recalculated every time a file changes.  Note they will be significantly faster to obtain than signature checking of malware because most involve metadata, with only a few clues requiring computation of a hash value on a file (something often computed routinely in investigations).  Our methods can also be done before suspected malicious files are run unlike behavioral analysis.  Other methods can also be used to combine clues such as neural networks and support-vector machines.

To get a quick idea of how our methods compare to standard tools, we tested Symantec Endpoint Protection installed on a Windows machine.  On a Linux machine without Symantec, we extracted 57 random files previously identified by Symantec as malicious during downloads from our corpus, mostly executables since Symantec focuses on those.  We did two manipulations to each file: reversing the bytes of each file and adding (K+1) modulo 256 to the Kth byte of each file (adding 1 to each byte did not fool Symantec), both of which gave similar results.  We then copied the files to a Windows machine with Symantec temporarily disabled, undid the manipulation, and placed them in various places in the secondary storage.  Disabling Symantec was necessary because its normal proactive mode inspects all new files.  We then ran an “active scan: scan only the most commonly infected areas” and Symantec was unable to detect any of the malicious files; apparently it is only looking in a few locations.  Even when we turned back on the full functionality of the scanner, it found some residual files only the next day, and caches only a week later, more than enough time for malware to cause trouble.  Symantec’s only alternative is a “full scan” that did find the malware, but it requires 30-120 minutes according to them and creates significant processing overhead; and since it appears to look only for files modified since the last scan, it can be fooled by malware that changes file metadata but not contents.  Thus it appears that Symantec’s only alternative to a full scan looks only at files in certain directories and not at files by extension.

                                                                                                                                                              V.    Conclusions

This work is important in testing a considerably larger corpus of real-world malware than any previous work.  It has shown some surprising things about where malware occurred in real systems.  Malware is not just in executables and system directories, but is spread over a wide range of files.  Some of the classic clues were supported and some were not.  Comparison of different malware-identification methods showed important differences in clue strengths.  These clues can be supplemented by signature, behavioral, and reputation clues, and by clues provided by users [14], to provide a broad approach to predicting malware [15].  However, our results raise serious questions about reputation based on popularity.  Another step is to apply clue analysis to meaningful components of malware to recognize commonalities more easily [16].

     Can malware writers evade our identification methods by deliberately putting malware in context that does not match our clues?  Certainly, but then we have then increased the cost to them of deploying malware, which is all that any anti-malware method can do.  The situation is similar to that of signature-based malware detection, where a malware writer can replace a discovered signature with functional equivalent, but at the cost of their time and effort.

The low rate of overlap between malware-identification methods suggests that organizations should not depend on a single anti-malware product to defend their systems.  Our school, for instance, depends heavily on Symantec.  Use of a single tool means many organizations are unprepared to eliminate malware found by other methods; ad hoc malware removal is time-consuming and may jeopardize normal functionality.  While some of the non-Symantec malware identifications found in this study may be spurious, it is unlikely that most are, and thus we conclude that many organizations are vulnerable to a spectrum of malware.

This work focused on local clues to malware, but other types of suspicious files may also be detectable by these methods.  For instance, persons under criminal investigation will want to conceal information about their criminal activities using the concealment methods discussed above plus additional methods such as clustered deletions and steganography.  Our methodology for systematically testing clues on a corpus can also help for such investigations [11].


This work was supported by the U.S. Navy OPNAV Study program through NPS.  Riqui Schwamm and Jeromy Santos helped with the data processing.


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