A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Trojan Horses

Computer security is an ever-present necessity in today's digitally driven world. It is said that every new day brings a new method or technique to deceive unsuspecting individuals into giving up their data or computer control. One such method that has been around for quite some time, yet is still very potent today, is the Trojan horse. Like the mythological tale, a Trojan horse computer virus looks innocent on the surface, but it carries a malicious payload beneath its surface. In this article, we would explore how Trojan horses work, their history, and provide a few real-life examples of how they work in today's world.

The Origins of the Trojan Horse

History records the Trojan Horse as a story of treachery and deception, where the Greek army built a wooden horse, hid soldiers inside it, and gifted it to the city of Troy, inside which the soldiers opened the city's gates, allowing the Greek army to conquer them. This strategy has been used in various ways, including a military attack on computers through the Trojan horse virus, which is now a popular cybersecurity term.

The first recorded use of the name 'Trojan horse' in the cybersecurity world was in 1974, when a computer program disguised as a game became popular on university mainframes. Hackers in those days would try to break into the mainframes to show off their skills rather than stealing valuable data. Trojan horse viruses slowly grew from being just a hacker's tool to becoming part of organized crime. By the 1990s, various hackers had created multiple types of Trojan horse viruses, including the "Pirate" virus that offered free software in exchange for using the user's PC to receive and disseminate pirated content.

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How Trojan Horse Works

A Trojan horse is designed to appear stable and beneficial to the computer user, tricking the user to install it. There is no way to know if a program or file is infected by a Trojan horse without running an antivirus. When a user installs a Trojan horse, the seemingly harmless file opens a port on the connection which the hacker behind the Trojan horse can use to access the computer.

Once a Trojan horse is installed, it can facilitate theft of personal data, use the computer as part of a collection of infected machines for more significant attacks, or simply deny the user access to their system until they pay the hackers a "ransom."

Types of Trojan Horse

Trojan horses manifest themselves in different ways. There are backdoor Trojans, data sending Trojans, and ransomware Trojans, which are the most common types;

Backdoor Trojan: These Trojans are designed to create a 'backdoor' on the computer, giving the hacker unrestricted access to the system. A few of them perform a series of scans searching for vulnerable software to install themselves onto a victim's computer, and their activity can range from simple keylogging (collecting and transmitting keystrokes) to remote control of the affected computer.

Data-Sending Trojan: This Trojan provides remote access to a victim's sensitive data, such as financial information, personal data, bank account details, and passwords. Cybercriminals can use these Trojans for identity theft or to access a user's bank account and wire transfer money to their own account.

Ransomware Trojan: As the name implies, Ransomware Trojans are designed to restrict a victim's access to their computer, holding the machine hostage until payment is made. Usually, payment is demanded in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to minimize the risk of being traced.

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Real-Life Examples of Trojan Horse Malware

Trojan horses have been used to execute some of the most successful cyber-attacks in history. Two prime examples are the attacks against the Ukrainian power grid and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) email hack.

The Ukrainian Power Grid Attack: In December 2015, a Trojan horse attack hit Ukraine's power grid, blacking out over 230,000 households for hours. The Trojan horse used malware named Black Energy to infiltrate the power grid, allowing hackers to take control and cause damage to the electrical infrastructure.

The DNC Hack: In 2016, an unknown Russian hacking group used one of the most infamous Trojan horses, the "Cozy Bear" backdoor Trojan, to steal data from the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The Trojan was successfully installed onto DNC computers when an employee clicked on a malicious hyperlink disguising itself as a legitimate email, setting off a chain of events that led to the release of sensitive data.

Prevent Trojan Horse Attacks

The best way to protect your computer systems from Trojan horses is with a robust antivirus, such as Norton or McAfee. These antiviruses are updated daily with the latest databases of malware, ensuring that any new infection methods used to introduce Trojan horses to systems are detected, quarantined, and eradicated before damage is done. Apart from antiviruses, other essential precautions include regular system updates and careful web browsing by avoiding clicking unknown links, visiting suspicious websites, or opening email attachments from unknown sources.

Conclusion

Trojan horses are some of the most damaging malware that can be installed on your computer, but preventing these attacks can be straightforward with a little effort. Users should install and maintain a robust antivirus, regularly update their computer systems, and avoid suspicious links, emails and websites. Most importantly, stay informed about the latest cybersecurity news, techniques, and trends to protect yourself from the ever-evolving world of cybersecurity.

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