Typhoid adware works in similar fashion to Typhoid Mary, the first identified healthy carrier of typhoid fever who spread the disease to dozens of people in the New York area in the early 1900s. "We're looking at a different variant of adware -- Typhoid adware -- which we haven't seen out there yet, but we believe could be a threat soon," says associate professor John Aycock, who co-authored a research paper with assistant professor Mea Wang and students Daniel Medeiros Nunes de Castro and Eric Lin. Typhoid adware could be spread via a wireless Internet cafe or other area where users share a nonencrypted wireless connection, the researchers say.
"Typhoid adware is designed for public places where people bring their laptops," Aycock says. "It's far more covert, displaying advertisements on computers that don't have the adware installed, not the ones that do."
The paper, which DeCastro recently presented at the EICAR security conference in Paris, demonstrates how Typhoid adware works and suggests ways to defend against it.
Typically, adware authors install their software on as many machines as possible. But Typhoid adware hijacks the wireless access point and convinces other laptops to communicate with it instead. Then the Typhoid adware automatically inserts advertisements in videos and Web pages on hijacked computers, the researchers say. Meanwhile, the carrier sips her latte in peace -- she sees no advertisements and doesn't know she is infected, just like symptomless Typhoid Mary.
The researchers offer a number of defenses against Typhoid adware. One is protecting the content of videos to ensure that what users see comes from the original source. Another is a way to "tell" laptops they are at an Internet cafe to make them more suspicious of contact from other computers.
"When you go to an Internet cafe, you tell your computer you are there and it can put up these defenses," Aycock says. "Antivirus companies can do the same thing through software that stops your computer from being misled and redirected to someone else."
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