Security vendors are increasingly baking whitelisting technology into their anti-virus and other security products to battle malware. Whitelisting is an effort to compile a list of trusted, malware-free applications that IT and the user community agree to support.
Corporate IT security managers are
confronting the reality that the sheer volume of both malicious and unmalicious
software programs is growing explosively, prompting them to look for more
effective tools to deal with the situation.
But with some research reports showing that the
amount of malware being created is actually outstripping the number of
legitimate programs being developed, some security vendors are increasingly
talking up whitelisting as a way to defend the desktop.
For Symantec, that means ultimately creating what
Carey Nachenberg, vice president of research and development, called an "uber-whitelist"
of safe applications. No small feat, considering the sheer number of
applications created by developers. The idea, Nachenberg explained in an
interview with eWEEK, is to leverage Symantec's user community to create a
comprehensive list of trusted files to provide to IT administrators so that
whitelisting can be better used to protect enterprise desktops.
Right now, he argued, it is difficult for
administrators to create a comprehensive list of trusted applications for their
organizations because of the dynamic nature of today's end-user machines.
Employees often install third-party applications, from iTunes to utilities such
as Google Desktop, he explained.
"As such, if an administrator were to
inventory the software present on 1,000 desktops [or] laptops, they'd find
thousands or tens of thousands of different applications," Nachenberg said.
"It would be cost-prohibitive for an enterprise administrator to manually
inventory those thousand machines and then determine, by hand, which of the tens
of thousands of applications are legitimate and should be added to a whitelist."
However, keeping such an "uber-whitelist"
up-to-date poses problems of its own. If, for example, a small vendor creates
an application with a limited number of users, it may be a while before the
application hits Symantec's radar and is added to the list of safe programs, Nachenberg
Still, the strategy is illustrative of how some
security vendors are thinking. Symantec is leveraging whitelisting in the
latest versions of Norton
and Norton AntiVirus,
both currently betas, in order to cut down on the amount of resources needed
To be sure, whitelisting as an approach is nothing
new. In fact, it is the bread and butter of companies like Bit9 and others. In
Kaspersky Lab's upcoming release of its Internet Security 2009 and Anti-Virus
2009 products, the company is licensing Bit9's database of trusted files and
"By adding the whitelisting component ...we
dramatically lift resources required to secure that stuff, and we're able to
focus our other resources on stuff that falls into that 'unsure' category [of
applications],"said Peter Beardmore, senior product marketing manager at
The Kaspersky products draw on the Bit9 list as
well as information gathered from their own users to determine what
applications can be considered safe. A level of risk is assigned to each
application, and the applications are then ranked. Unsafe or unknown
applications face varying levels of restrictions.
"Our approach has all of the components, it's
the bad, it's the good, but the everything else category basically allows you
to download iTunes, or download whatever you need to download ... and allow it to
operate on your system, but allow it to operate in a manner that we know it to
be safe," Beardmore explained.
But for all the attention whitelisting
seems to be getting, it won't work for
everyone, Gartner analyst John Pescatore said. Total lockdown-not letting users
install any applications-hardly worked for anyone, and while whitelisting
improves flexibility, no whitelist will ever have every piece of potentially
safe software on it, he said.
"Another area where whitelisting is overhyped
is the inevitable gray area between the whitelist and blacklist-given trends
like Web 2.0/AJAX widgets, gadgets, etc. at any given point in time the
graylist will always be large," Pescatore noted.
"We need innovation in automatic analysis
of executables to detect malicious intent. Companies like FireEye and Avinti
are doing some innovative stuff here, the AV guys keep talking about what they
can do but seem afraid to perhaps imperil their blacklist revenues-there is
still a lot of room for breakthroughs there."