Tough Decisions: Heuristics and Threats

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-11-21 Print this article Print

Opinion: Should anti-virus products have flagged and removed the Sony rootkit? Their initial failure was understandable, and if the system fell apart it's Sony's fault.

I only partly agree with Bruce Schneier when he criticizes the anti-virus industry for not finding the Sony rootkit for all the months before it was discovered by Sysinternals Mark Russinovich. Most of Schneiers criticism actually relates to the sloth they exhibited in adding detection once the threat was exposed, and the fact that they tended just to remove the rootkit, not the unstable DRM components.

There are numerous difficult questions in this scenario. Its easy and cheap to lash out at various industries for not doing better for consumers, but many of the things Schneier and his blog comment writers yell about just couldnt be helped.

For advice on how to secure your network and applications, as well as the latest security news, visit Ziff Davis Internets Security IT Hub.

The fact remains, and will continue to remain after this, that its not always easy to determine what is a threat and what is legitimate system software performing privileged operations. For instance, FORMAT.EXE can destroy your hard disk, but its not malware. How should an anti-virus program know the difference? The more important fact is that in this case two companies that should be trustworthy, Sony and First 4 Internet, betrayed that trust. This is enough to make a mess of any reasonable security system.

Incidentally, I may as well point out here that a great way to protect yourself against the First 4 Internet rootkit and many other threats is to disable Autoplay, the Windows feature that automatically runs software when a mass storage volume is attached to the system. Its most famous for CDs, but works for all media—USB keys, for example. Click here to read how to disable it for all drives on the system.

I was recently on a security discussion group with the great Dr. Solomon (author of a famous anti-virus product later bought by McAfee). The good doctor posed the (rhetorical, of course) question of why the Sony rootkit is something that an anti-virus product should detect. The main answer, and the reason its a threat, is not that it performs DRM functions but that it hides itself sloppily, opening up the system for exploitation by third parties. (Dr. Solomon still has lots of friends, but no financial interest, in the anti-virus industry.)

Click here to read about how Microsoft plans to handle Sonys DRM software.

If this is true, the doctor continues, surely an old, unpatched copy of Internet Explorer qualifies as a threat to be flagged by anti-virus software. After all, it has vulnerabilities that are being actively exploited in the wild.

Next page: What should we expect from anti-virus?

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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