AVAR Conference Paper 2013

My last but one paper for AVAR was co-written with Larry Bridwell: as neither of us ws able to get to AVAR 2013 in Chennai, it was presented by ESET’s Juraj Malcho. It was called Death of a Salesforce: whatever happened to anti-virus? and is also available on the ESET web site.

But here’s the abstract:

Anti-Virus is, it seems, an ex-parrot. We’ve seen so many announcements of the death of anti-virus we’ve taken to carrying black ties around with us, ready for the next one. This paper probably won’t have much impact on the ludicrously funereal tone of some commentary, but will take an informed look at the reasons most often given for the imminent demise of the AV industry and in the hope of achieving a balanced view of the present role and future evolution of malware analysis.  Reports of the (near-) death of static signature detection may not be exaggerated, but anti-malware technology has moved far beyond simple signatures. We consider in depth the accuracy of some of the basic contentions that keep turning up ad infinitum in memoriam…

  1. Conclusions based on detection testing and pseudo-testing statistics
  2. Anti-virus is ok if you don’t have to pay for it
  3. Heuristic detection has gone the way of the static signature
  4. Spammed out malware is less important than targeted malware
  5. New (mobile) platforms require new defensive paradigms

Catching or blocking malware is just part of the security challenge, at home or in the workplace, and malware detection is a very different technology to what it was 20 years ago, but does that mean it’s obsolescent? We look at the three primary functions of AV:

  • protection in the form of proactive detection and blocking through a range of heuristic, reputational and generic countermeasures
  • detection of known malware
  • remediation where something is detected and has managed to gain a foothold

We contend and demonstrate that while emphasis has undergone an irreversible shift from detection by signature, to remediation of signature-detected malware, to more generic detection by technologies such as heuristics, behaviour analysis, and reputation, a complete solution addresses all those issues. AV is dead, or at best comatose: at any rate, self-replicating malware is a small part of a much larger problem, while signature detection is primarily a fallback technology that helps with remediation rather than a primary layer of protection. 

Anti-malware technology moved on long ago. Customer and media perception, though, has lagged way behind. Could it be that when other sectors of the security industry, driven by commercial agendas, engage in inaccurate and at best misinformed anti-AV commentary, that they are also putting their own interests and those of the community at large at risk? Would a world without the mainstream anti-malware industry be such a good place to live?

David Harley CITP FBCS CISSP
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

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About David Harley

Computer Security Author/Editor; Independent Antimalware Researcher; CEO at Small Blue-Green World; Senior Research Fellow at ESET.
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