Security Vendors Embrace Application Whitelisting

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 conceded.

Still, the strategy is illustrative of how some security vendors are thinking. Symantec is leveraging whitelisting in the latest versions of Norton Internet Security and Norton AntiVirus, both currently betas, in order to cut down on the amount of resources needed to scan.

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 applications.

"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 Kaspersky.

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."