The unwarranted war on AV products

“Antivirus software a waste of money for businesses” crows the headline of a recent story, one of many missives against antivirus (AV) software driven by an outdated understanding of how such software works. The truth is that the death of AV tools’ effectiveness has been greatly exaggerated.

Traditionally, antivirus software was powered by signatures: digital fingerprints that uniquely identify malicious files or code snippets. The AV software on a computer would receive updates of its signatures once per day or week from the AV company, ensuring it could protect the user from the latest threats. The effectiveness of an AV product was determined primarily by the number of different signatures available and how quickly they were distributed. Tools like VirusTotal arose to make it easy to see which AV tool could detect a particular piece of malware. Product testing labs and tech journalists could load up a computer with a bunch of malware files and easily compare detection rates across products.

Today, everything has changed. Malware evolves far too quickly—sometimes even on a per-download basis—for AV products to depend on daily signatures. As one would expect, most of the major vendors have responded, dramatically increasing the frequency of signature updates and supplementing signatures with new approaches. Here are a few features that have become popular in major AV products recently:

  • If you download a file, the AV product will check it against a whitelist of known safe files. If it’s not on the whitelist and it doesn’t match a malware signature, the product will analyze the file’s behavior and/or reputation in real time (either on the computer or via the cloud) before allowing it to run.
  • If your browser connects to a website/URL known to distribute malware, the user will receive a warning and/or the browser will be blocked from downloading potentially harmful files.
  • If unknown software on your computer attempts to engage in a potentially harmful behavior (e.g., installing a new add-on in your browser), it will be  blocked and/or the user will receive a warning.
  • If a web page or online ad attempts to exploit a vulnerability to install malware on your computer, the AV tool will block the attempt.

By layering several approaches (including the use of signatures) atop each other, today’s AV products protect users far more effectively than their predecessors. Unfortunately, many people, even in the security industry, are not aware of this evolution. It’s common to see articles like the one above that claim AV tools are still primarily signature based and that use VirusTotal (which only assesses signature-based detection) as a gauge of AV effectiveness. In reality, this is like assessing the effectiveness of a building’s security system based only on its window alarms, while ignoring its motion detectors and cameras. When you look at tests that attempt to simulate real-world user behavior, such as visiting malicious websites and opening infected email attachments, it’s clear that AV is far more effective than the pundits claim. A recent set of studies by Dennis Technology Labs, for example, found that products prevented infection in between 53% and 100% of cases—far more effective than the pundits claim. The range of results shows that the more important discussion is about which tools and methodologies work best. (Some other important areas of comparison are false positive rates, the tools’ impact on system performance, and user experience.)

It’s time to end the unwarranted war on AV products. They may not be perfect—nothing is—but they do continue to earn their place alongside a range of other security measures in companies and homes alike.

Advertisements

Moving on from StopBadware

I recently made the difficult decision to step down as executive director of StopBadware. Though I didn’t start StopBadware—credit for that goes to John Palfrey, Jonathan Zittrain, and their collaborators—it has been my adopted baby for over five years now. What once was an energetic and chaotic Berkman Center project is now an independent (though still energetic and at times chaotic) nonprofit organization working together with many of the world’s greatest Web companies. I’m proud of the contributions I’ve made to StopBadware’s success, and I’m gratified that the organization has matured to a point that I can feel comfortable passing the reins to someone else. In fact, it’s not just that I feel comfortable doing so; I actually look forward to it. After five years, I think StopBadware will benefit from some fresh ideas and a new vision of what can be accomplished by leveraging the organization’s dynamic team, supportive partners, impressive board of directors, and positive reputation.

I believe the change will do me good, as well. During my time at StopBadware, I’ve built relationships with a lot of amazing people and learned from a boatload of mistakes (and the occasional success). I’m ready to take that experience into a new environment with new types of problems to solve. A reboot for my professional soul, if you will.

Some people have asked me where, specifically, I’m headed. I’m still exploring my options, but I do have some ideas of what I’m looking for. I know I want to remain in greater Boston, though I’m open to some travel. I’d like to make the best possible use of my experience leading a team and an organization. I enjoy building external relationships, public speaking, and otherwise interacting with people. Remaining in the security field would be ideal, though another area of interest is the intersection of technology and education. And, perhaps most of all, I want to feel good about what I’m contributing to my organization and what my organization is contributing to the world. Private sector? Nonprofit? Government? I’m open; it all depends on the fit.

Meanwhile, I’m not walking out the door at StopBadware until we’ve found a new executive director. Please, if you know a strong candidate, pass along the job description. And if you’re a strong candidate, let the Board’s search committee know why by sending a cover letter and resume to execsearch@stopbadware.org.

Privacy choice done well

I recently switched my ISP and cable provider from Comcast to Verizon. Yesterday, I received an email from Verizon describing some plans they have for facilitating geo-targeting of online ads. The email stood out to me as an example of privacy choice done well, for several reasons:

  • Verizon contacted me proactively by sending me an email, instead of expecting me to notice a change in the privacy policy or a note on my bill.
  • The email was clear and concise, explaining exactly what was planned and what the impact would be on me if I didn’t opt out (or if I did).
  • Opting out, if I so desired, simply required changing a setting in my online account.

Verizon should be commended for handling this new initiative in a way that demonstrates respect for their customers. Other service providers, Internet and otherwise, would do well to follow Verizon’s example.