Application Whitelisting Gains Traction

The technology, being pushed by such vendors as Cisco, is giving IT departments a new weapon in fighting malware. Application whitelisting is a good complement to other anti-virus strategies, such as blacklisting, diligent patching and user education.

Malicious software is a disease, and the conventional-wisdom remedies of diligent patching, anti-virus deployment and user education haven't proved potent enough to bring about a cure.

Enter application whitelisting, a different approach to the problem of securing Windows clients. Application whitelisting has been around for a while now, but has gained new currency over the past several months, with industry leaders such as Cisco Systems Chief Security Officer John Stewart pointing out the limitations and the expense of current anti-malware strategies.

Application whitelisting, which is also known as application control, contrasts with the blacklisting approach embodied by typical anti-virus products. Rather than track and quarantine harmful bits, whitelisting involves barring all but approved executables from running on a given machine.

Based on eWEEK Labs research and testing on the current crop of applica??ítion whitelisting products, we sug??ígest that administrators charged with keeping Windows-based PCs secure from malware further evaluate where whitelisting can fit into their security strategy, either to complement-or perhaps to replace-their existing anti-virus investments.

What's Wrong with the Status Quo?

Prompt software patching and diligent user education efforts form the foundation of any successful security strategy. However, in the face of zero-day vulnerabilities and cleverly targeted social engineering schemes, up-to-date applications and savvy users aren't enough to keep your desktops secure.

The most common complement to patching and education is an applica??ítion blacklisting approach implemented through anti-virus software installed on every desktop machine. Anti-virus as a security measure is so well ingrained in the desktop world that Windows instal??ílations throw up a warning message if anti-virus software is not installed, and the PCI DSS (Payment Card Indus??ítry Data Security Standard) specifically mandates the use of anti-virus software on machines through which credit card data passes.

However, anti-virus applications, which work either by blacklisting known bad software or by actively scan??íning systems for suspicious behavior, come with significant drawbacks and cannot block all attacks. For instance, there's considerable system overhead associated with scanning, and the fre??íquent signature updates required to keep anti-virus applications in good working order can be difficult to main??ítain. These factors can prove particu??ílarly onerous on the often aged systems that run point-of-sale applications at PCI-regulated organizations.

Even for systems with enough resources to shoulder scanning over??íhead, as well as the connectivity and availability to receive frequent anti-virus signature updates, these security products are reactive in nature and lack potency regarding new or tightly tar??ígeted threats not yet included in the anti-virus vendors' signature databases.