CME Malware Naming System Never Had a Chance

Opinion: About six months after its inception, CME has not clarified the malware mess in any meaningful way, but fortunately the problem is obsolescing.

Do you remember the Common Malware Enumeration Initiative? I wrote about it skeptically several months ago and was recently reminded of it by an article by one of my own favorite writers, Rob Lemos of SecurityFocus.

CME is an effort to create a simple and centralized naming system for malware. One of the banes of the anti-virus business is that different researchers and anti-virus companies use different, often wildly different, names for the same attack.

Even worse in a way, some times theyre off just by the variant code, so Bagle.AR for one vendor could be the same as Bagle.AQ for another.

How are administrators and other non-experts supposed to keep track of such stuff? The answer was supposed to be CME, which would create a code and maintain a database of which threat names corresponded to that code. So you could see, for example, that all of these malware names correspond to the same attack, a.k.a. CME-24:

  • McAfee: W32/MyWife.d@MM
  • Norman: W32/Small.KI
  • Panda: W32/Tearec.A.worm
  • Sophos: W32/Nyxem-D
  • Symantec: W32.Blackmal.E@mm
  • TrendMicro: WORM_GREW.A
Some vendors have embraced the CME system to a degree; Microsoft calls this same attack "Microsoft: Win32/Mywife.E@mm!CME-24."

Lemos writes that CME is fighting an uphill struggle. He cites spotty evidence of success, but the big picture is less encouraging.

In fact, Ive yet to read an optimistic assessment from anyone who wasnt directly involved with the initiative. Most outside observers sound like me, or like Dr. Alan Solomon, well-known as "Dr. Solomon," one of the pioneers in anti-virus development.

Dr. Solomon also argues that CME has added nothing but another name, one that is likely to be ignored.

The realistic case for CME never claimed that it could take over the naming system. It was about outbreaks, the big ones where admins cant just let the tools do the job but must personally look into things.

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Unfortunately, the CME system is not up to the task it sets itself. It can take hours to determine that an attack is one of those important ones, deserving of CME treatment, and those first few hours are all that is needed for the naming to get out of hand. Also, researchers may disagree on whether they are seeing the same threat.

Lemos talks about the CME-24 case. This was one that got some attention over an extended period of time, because a delayed payload in the attack was scheduled to delete files on the system.

So in this case there was enough time for the CME name to be available when it was still timely and useful, and it did get used some.

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Unfortunately, CME-24 is a drop in the malware bucket. In most cases the CME name gets no coverage, and these days theres even less opportunity. The number of significant malware outbreaks has been decreasing over time to the point that in 2005 you could probably count them on both hands. Who needs a new numbering system under such circumstances?

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at larryseltzer@ziffdavis.com.

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