Scanning an Existing System

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-10-20 Print this article Print


What if you scanned an existing in-use system? Basically, there could be malware in it. Identifying this malware as part of the scan would be difficult as compared to identifying it in the field as it enters the system. This is why it's best to begin whitelisting with known-good systems. I may be misreading Bit9 in this regard; its system is designed to show any software that shouldn't be there, but it still seems risky to me. Clearly CoreTrace's system won't work for in-the-field systems.

The two products handle software updaters differently as well. CoreTrace lets you designate specific sources, such as a network share or a management system such as Tivoli, as trusted. The idea is that you then turn off all other updaters, such as Windows Update and Acrobat and Firefox's automatic self-update mechanisms, and push all updates through those trusted sources. They call this "Trusted Change."

They also have a trusted user concept, where a user can make a decision to run an unapproved app after a prompt. This only works for digitally signed apps, but even so it's still a risk. It's up to you whether you want to implement such things. It may be necessary to give at least some users such power in order for a whitelisting system to be politically acceptable, but most users aren't trustworthy.

There isn't any reason why you need to do this all at once, though. You could start to introduce whitelisted systems and move others to it as they come in for service or on a longer schedule.

I mentioned in my Russinovich column that application exploits are a challenge for these products. Since an exploit of the application runs in the context of the application, a whitelisting system could easily miss it. CoreTrace deals with this by including stack overflow monitoring, but this covers only some of the ways exploits work. I'm not sure of the other products. I think this is something to worry about, but it's not a deal-breaker. It's not like existing anti-malware systems handle exploits well.

These systems aren't all Windows-only, but clearly there are some platform issues. For instance, what about mobile devices they don't support? The whitelist won't be universal, but that's no reason not to protect the mainstream systems. If malware gets around the whitelist that way it will only call more attention to those devices and the need to secure them somehow.

I have to say it's all more encouraging that I thought it would be, and it is still in the early stage. Perhaps with some assistance from future versions of Windows, whitelisting could be more practical. We'd all better hope so.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack

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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