A Tutorial in x86 Assembly Language:
An Examination
of   the
EICAR Standard AV Test Program
A step-by-step Analysis of its Operation
Microsoft's DEBUG Program

The EICAR (European Institute for Computer Anti-Virus Research ) Standard AV Test Program has two slightly different forms (designated as eicar68.com and eicar70.com. The digits signify how many bytes are in each file). The larger file is often created when a text editor places the cursor on a newline before saving it (MS-DOS's EDIT.COM in text mode does this); which adds the hexadecimal bytes 0D and 0A (a carriage return and linefeed ) to the end of the file. This does not affect the program's operation in any way; it functions the same no matter how many extra bytes are place at the end of its file (unless your OS refuses to execute a .COM file that exceeds the old 64 KiB memory limit). From this point on we'll refer to any of its formats (68, 70 or whatever length) as simply EICAR.COM.

The reason for this last requirement was to make it possible for the program to be created using only a text editor; the exclusion of spaces leaves no doubt about the total number of bytes. Another benefit of limiting the program to ASCII characters only is the ease of transmission by any email client/server.

Requirements 3 and 4, meant that the programmer could only use the HEX bytes 21 - 60 and 7B - 7E.   But   the only way a DOS program can send characters to the display screen is through an "interrupt function," and all x86 interrupts must begin with the hex byte, CD (decimal = 205). This obviously exceeds the range of the standard ASCII characters ( 0 to 127).   So how did they do it?   That's one of the things you'll learn by going through this tutorial.

Most programmers today rarely if ever deal with the kind of details presented in this tutorial. We wrote this page so students and even the average PC user could appreciate both the complexity involved in running a very simple program and early programmers of the past. Programmers today normally use high-level macro instructions and libraries of pre-assembled code. A single statement in these high-level languages often produces the equivalent of dozens to even pages full of assembly instructions compared to the few we'll be examining here.

Obtaining or Creating Eicar.com

The operation of this self-modifying program can be studied without having to deactivate any installed Antivirus (AV) program: We'll do this by running its code in the virtual memory of the MS-DEBUG utility. Most, if not all, AV programs will remain unaware of this code; unless you try to save it to your hard disk!

If you're using an Anti-Virus program set to run in the background, Eicar.com should trigger an "alarm" when you either access or simply try to save the file! That's what it's supposed to do; your AV program should also tell you that it's the EICAR test program. (Note: Some AV programs can be set to exclude Eicar.com so you can actually run the program normally.) If your AV program doesn't alert you immediately (when you either create or extract Eicar.com from our .ZIP archive), it's most likely set to do manual scanning only; scan the file (as you would any other program you download) to see if your AV program alerts you!

If your AV program is disabled or only does manual scans, then executing EICAR.COM should print out the following when run in a DOS-box:
Even if you can't run the program (say you're using a workstation in a Library for example), you could still learn something by viewing the illustrations below and reading the information presented here.

Download the file (with brief text description) from The Starman's Realm: EICAR.ZIP .
Or, create it yourself by pasting the following characters into Notepad and saving the file with a .com extension. (Note: Some text editors will always change a file's extension to .txt; if that's the case, you'll get a filename like 'eicar.com.txt' and need to change it.)

  The eicar.com program:


( If you need them, you'll find complete instructions on our old What is a Virus? page. )

Warning: Using the W (write) command in DEBUG can result in loss of data on your hard drive! Do NOT experiment with this command. For more information, see Guide to DEBUG.

Studying Eicar.com under Debug

Although we could place Eicar.com in some folder, note its location and load the program into DEBUG.COM, most of us will never be able to create the file due to some AV program not allowing that! So, we'll simply paste the code into DEBUG manually.

If you've never used a DOS-window before, you should read How to Use a DOS Window; others may wish to skim its contents for new information. A list of DOS 7 Internal Commands is here, but the only two you might need are the  cd  (Change Directory) command (to get to a folder you store a file in) and the   exit  command (to end your DOS session); DOS-windows are usually set to open at the C:\WINDOWS folder.

Open a DOS-window (sometimes called a "Command Prompt") at this time.
Rather than changing to the folder containing eicar.com as the instructions suggest below, you could simply enter the full path-name to the file as part of the Debug load command.

For example:   C:\WINDOWS>debug c:\temp\eicar.com

Once you've got the DOS prompt at the folder where you saved eicar.com, load the program into DEBUG by entering:         debug eicar.com
(See green text in the pic below.)  The only thing you'll see is a little dash [-] on the next line. This is the "command prompt" for DEBUG. Enter the letter d or D (case doesn't matter in DEBUG) and you should see a display similar to the one below. For each d command you enter, only 128 bytes are displayed at a time. But our program is just 68 bytes long, so you can ignore all the rest (under the yellow lines). Each line contains 16 bytes of code or data. [ All numbers displayed in DEBUG are hexadecimal.  ( For a detailed study, see: What Is 'Hexadecimal'?) ]

The color in these pics is false; used for emphasis (Green = Commands you enter.
Text or lines in Blue, Yellow, or Violet are notes; NOT part of the original output ).

The two numbers separated by a colon (:) at the beginning of each line tell you where the first byte of that line is located in your computer's memory. The first number is called the Segment and the second is the Offset. [ For a detailed study see: Removing the Mystery from the SEGMENT:OFFSET Addressing scheme.]
In the pic above, we see that EICAR.COM was placed into memory beginning at a segment :offset location of 1795:0100.    It's highly unlikely that your computer will load the program into the same segment of memory (1795), but the offset (0100) will be the same. DEBUG always loads .COM files so the first byte of the program has an offset of 0100 hex. [ The first 256 bytes (00h to FFh) of the segment contain information that DOS uses to run the program (that section is called the PSP - Program Segment Prefix.) ]

For comparison, here's what eicar.com looks like in the free Hex editor called Frhed:

(Here's a review of Frhed and its download link.)

This program is comprised of 20 individual steps:

(Program Instruction Step 1):
Now enter the letter r (or R) and you should see a display of your CPU's 16-bit registers similar to the pic below. The numbers at the beginning of the last line are always the segment :offset location of the x86 machine instruction which is ready for execution. As we step through this program, the offset will always equal the value in the IP register ( Instruction Pointer). For all true .COM files (size must be less than 64kb), the CX register will always contain the length of the program unless the code changes it.   Here CX = 44 hex = 68 decimal bytes.

The Register Command (and Instruction Step 1).

Following the segment:offset (1795:0100) pair in the last line is the hex number 58 — this is the first byte of the program's code.   It is then decoded  as the assembly language instruction "POP AX" which means to take the last two bytes of the Stack (stored at offsets FFFE and FFFF ) and move them into the AX register. [ My experience has taught me that DOS always 'zeroes-out' the last two bytes of a segment used by .COM programs (the SP always being set to FFFE), so executing POP AX should still leave us with zero in the AX register. The Stack Pointer will, of course, be changed to 0000 in the process. Under normal circumstances, however, I would never consider this to be an example of good programming practice and would recommend using an XOR AX,AX instruction to zero-out the AX register first. ]
(Instruction Step 2):
Enter a 't' (or T; for Trace) at the DEBUG prompt to carry out the POP instruction. This will also display any register changes and decode the next instruction (at IP = 101).

It's a logical operation called XOR (Exclusive-OR). Since AX is zero, this operation is equivalent to moving 214F into AX.   [ Note that word-sized  numerical values are stored in memory with the 'low byte' first and the 'high byte' last; 4F 21 in the instruction code is actually the word '214F'. ]
(Instruction Step 3):
Enter another 't' at this time and watch as AX changes to 214F and the next assembly instruction becomes:    50      PUSH   AX     (with IP = 104). Before someone out there gets trigger-happy with the 't' key trying to find out what happens next, I'd better warn you that the final two instructions ( both of them are interrupts ) must be executed using the 'p' ( Proceed ) command !
Since there are no calls to a subroutine or loops within eicar.com itself, the p command could have been used for each step above. And it's the only execution command we'll use to finish this study. Executing this instruction (enter 'p' this time), places 214F onto 'the Stack' changing the SP register back to FFFE as seen above. Entering the Dump command with the offset fff0 confirms that the word 214F has been placed onto the Stack (only one line of bytes instead of eight is shown this time because memory Dumps do not continue past the end of a segment).
(Instruction Steps 4 through 6):
As can be seen above, the next instruction ( IP = 105 ) is a logical AND of the value in the AX register (214F) and 4140 with the contents of AX being replaced by the result ( 0140 ); see below. The result is placed onto the Stack by a PUSH instruction (use the command, 'd fff0' again to see this) and then into the BX register (with a POP BX at IP = 109) as follows:

[ Note that a PUSH instruction sends a copy of the data to the Stack leaving the value in the original location intact, whereas a POP instruction essentially removes data from the Stack. ]   (Instruction Step 7):   At IP = 10A, there's an XOR operation that involves only the low byte (AL) of the AX register. Remember that an Exclusive-OR means that the OR-ing of two bits can only be true (a one bit) if both bits are different. Thus, 40 hex (0100 0000) XOR-ed with 5C hex (0101 1100) results in: 1C (0001 1100) which replaces the 40 in the AL register.         (Instruction Steps 8 through 11):
Carry out a few more 'p' commands (beginning with the PUSH AX instruction at IP = 10C ) until AX contains 097B and the IP points to 112. The following shows some changes you'll see:

  AX=011C  BX=0140  CX=0044  DX=0000  SP=FFFC
  DS=1795  ES=1795  SS=1795  CS=1795  IP=010D
  1795:010D 5A            POP     DX

  AX=011C  BX=0140  CX=0044  DX=011C  SP=FFFE
  DS=1795  ES=1795  SS=1795  CS=1795  IP=010E
  1795:010E 58            POP     AX

  AX=214F  BX=0140  CX=0044  DX=011C  SP=0000
  DS=1795  ES=1795  SS=1795  CS=1795  IP=010F
  1795:010F 353428        XOR     AX,2834

The following Table gives the equivalents of 214F and 2834 in Binary and provides a bit-level graphic display of how the XOR function operates:

 214Fh ->  0010 0001 0100 1111
 2834h ->  0010 1000 0011 0100
 ( XOR )  ---------------------
           0000 1001 0111 1011
             0    9    7    B

(Instruction Steps 12 through 14):
Have you guessed what the number in the BX register (0140) refers to yet?
Hint: It's a location in memory near the end of our program; and we're running out of code! As we continue stepping through the code (see below), keep in mind how numerical WORD-sized values are stored in memory (Low-byte, High-byte).   Just before and  after you execute the instruction at IP = 114, enter the Dump command 'd 140 143' to see how this Subtract instruction changes the bytes in memory near the end of our program:

Now you know that a program can be written to change its own code while it runs (this happens quite often for 32-bit Windows programs at the time they are loaded into memory). In this case, eicar.com created a value that couldn't exist in the original code ( the byte CD ) enabling it to execute a critical DOS function (CD 21) near the end of its program (we'll discuss that function below).

(Instruction Steps 15 and 16):
The next two steps increase the value in the BX register in preparation for making a change at offset 0142:
 -r   <-- To see the registers again...
 AX=097B  BX=0140  CX=0044  DX=011C  SP=0000  BP=0000  SI=097B  DI=0000
 DS=1795  ES=1795  SS=1795  CS=1795  IP=0116   NV UP EI PL NZ AC PO NC
 1795:0116 43            INC     BX     [Step 15]

 AX=097B  BX=0141  CX=0044  DX=011C  SP=0000  BP=0000  SI=097B  DI=0000
 DS=1795  ES=1795  SS=1795  CS=1795  IP=0117   NV UP EI PL NZ NA PE NC
 1795:0117 43            INC     BX     [Step 16]
(Instruction Steps 17 and 18):
Step 17 is very similar to that of Step 14. As above, we'll be checking the contents of the location in the BX register both before and after executing the instruction at IP = 118. But this time we'll use the Dump command 'd 140 l4' (that's the letter 'el' and a 4 at the end of the command which means the range will be a 'length' of 4 bytes).
Normally this command, JGE - Jump if Greater than or Equal (to zero), would never be used in this situation! It's a conditional jump which means a condition should exist when the jump would not be made. But we always want to jump over the DATA section (011Ch to 013Fh) of this program:
-d 11c 13f
:0110                                      45 49 43 41               EICA
:0120  52 2D 53 54 41 4E 44 41-52 44 2D 41 4E 54 49 56   R-STANDARD-ANTIV
:0130  49 52 55 53 2D 54 45 53-54 2D 46 49 4C 45 21 24   IRUS-TEST-FILE!$
So why did the programmer use JGE 0140 (7D 24) instead of an un-conditional jump instruction? Simply because a short JMP instruction here would begin with the byte EB (decimal=235) which is again beyond the upper limit set for the program's characters. Since there are no conditions which keep execution from making this jump, JGE is an acceptable substitution here.

(Instruction Step 19):
This step contains one of the most important DOS Interrupts in existence: INT 21 (or CD 21). By 1992, there were at least 108 (00h - 6Ch) different functions being used under this interrupt and many of these functions have a number of sub-functions too! Just as most Windows programs call on code from within the Windows Operating System (API functions) rather than duplicating huge amounts of similar instructions inside of each program, DOS programs often use code from the DOS kernel (COMMAND.COM) or even the computer's BIOS. The function number for an INT 21 is placed in the AH register prior to execution. In this case, EICAR will execute Function 09h, the "Display String" function. The location of the string in memory is specified by the DS:DX registers (note the 011C in DX below) and a $-sign (24h) must be placed at the end of the string to indicate where it terminates. The string is simply displayed as one continuous line of characters without any new lines being possible!
(Instruction Step 20):
The program finally ends with INT 20h which was used by the original MS-DOS Version 1. For a very long time now, the recommended way of terminating DOS programs has been to use Function 4Ch of INT 21, but the programmer(s) of EICAR.com chose INT 20 to keep its size to a minimum rather than going through all the trouble of getting a 4C into the AH register and producing yet another CD byte! (Their reason may also have been to maintain compatibility with old DOS versions.)

A Summary of the Program's Operation
as an Assembly Code Listing
(All digits are in Hexadecimal.)

 xxxx:0100 58            POP     AX
 xxxx:0101 354F21        XOR     AX,214F
 xxxx:0104 50            PUSH    AX
 xxxx:0105 254041        AND     AX,4140
 xxxx:0108 50            PUSH    AX
 xxxx:0109 5B            POP     BX       ;--> Places 0140 in BX

 xxxx:010A 345C          XOR     AL,5C
 xxxx:010C 50            PUSH    AX
 xxxx:010D 5A            POP     DX       ;--> Places 011C in DX

 xxxx:010E 58            POP     AX
 xxxx:010F 353428        XOR     AX,2834
 xxxx:0112 50            PUSH    AX
 xxxx:0113 5E            POP     SI
 xxxx:0114 2937          SUB     [BX],SI  ;--> changes bytes at 140-141

 xxxx:0116 43            INC     BX
 xxxx:0117 43            INC     BX
 xxxx:0118 2937          SUB     [BX],SI  ;--> changes bytes at 142-143

 xxxx:011A 7D24          JGE     0140     ;--> Jumps over data string to
                                             ; the last two instructions

 xxxx:011C  45 49 43 41 52 2D 53 54 41  EICAR-STA
 xxxx:0125  4E 44 41 52 44 2D 41 4E 54  NDARD-ANT        DATA  STRING
 xxxx:012E  49 56 49 52 55 53 2D 54 45  IVIRUS-TE     which is displayed
 xxxx:0137  53 54 2D 46 49 4C 45 21 24  ST-FILE!$       by the program.

 xxxx:0140 CD21          INT     21       ;--> DOS Function 09h:
                                             ; Displays the text.
 xxxx:0142 CD20          INT     20       ;--> Program Termination funct.

Last Update: 27 FEB 2006.

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