The death of AV. Yet again.

And in other news, Gunter Ollman joins in the debate as to whether Imperva’s quasi-testing is worth citing (just about) and, with more enthusiasm, whether AV is worth paying for or even still breathing. If you haven’t come across Ollman’s writings on the topic before, it won’t surprise you that the answer is no. If you haven’t, he’s thoughtfully included several other links to articles where he’s given us the benefit of his opinions.

If it’s free, never ever bothers me with popups, and I never need to know it’s there, then it’s not worth the effort uninstalling it and I guess it can stay…

Ollman notes:

In particular there was great annoyance that a security vendor (representing an alternative technology) used VirusTotal coverage as their basis for whether or not new malware could be detected – claiming that initial detection was only 5%.

However, he doesn’t trouble himself to explain why the anti-malware industry (and VirusTotal itself) are so annoyed, or to comment on Imperva’s squirming following those criticisms. Nor does he risk exposing any methodology of his own to similar criticism, when he claims that:

desktop antivirus detection typically hovers at 1-2% … For newly minted malware that is designed to target corporate victims, the rate is pretty much 0% and can remain that way for hundreds of days after the malware has been released in to the wild.

Apparently he knows this from his own experience, so there’s no need to justify the percentages. And by way of distraction from this sleight of hand, he introduces ‘a hunchbacked Igor’ whom he visualizes ‘bolting on an iron plate for reinforcement to the Frankenstein corpse of each antivirus product as he tries to keep it alive for just a little bit longer…’ Amusing enough, I suppose, at any rate if you don’t know how hard those non-stereotypes in real anti-malware labs work at generating proactive detections for malware we haven’t seen yet and multi-layered protection. But this is about cheap laughs at the expense of an entire industry sector that Ollman regards as reaping profits that should be going to IOActive. Consider this little exchange on Twitter.

Imperva’s research on desktop anti-virus has stirred a fierce debate. @gollmann: @dharleyatESET:

@virusbtn @dharleyatESET I don’t know about “fierce”. It’s like prodding roadkill with a stick.

What are we, 12 years old? Fortunately, other tweeters seem to be seeing through this juvenilia.

@gollmann @virusbtn @dharleyatESET Again just methaphors and no data. This conversation is like trainwreck in slow motion :)

The comments to the blog are also notable for taking a more balanced view: Jarno succinctly points to VirusTotal’s own view on whether its service is a realistic guide to detection performance, Kurt Wismer puts his finger unerringly on the likely bias of Ollman”s nebulous methodology, and Jay suggests that Ollman lives in a slightly different (ideal) world (though he puts a little more politely than that). But no doubt the usual crop of AV haters, Microsoft haters, Mac and Linux advocates, scammers, spammers and downright barmpots will turn up sooner or later.

There is, in fact, a rational debate to be held on whether AV – certainly raw AV with no multi-layering bells and whistles – should be on the point of extinction. The rate of detection for specialized, targeted malware like Stuxnet is indeed very low, with all-too-well-known instances of low-distribution but high-profile malware lying around undetected for years. (It helps if such malware is aimed at parts of the world where most commercial AV cannot legally reach.) And Gunter Ollman is quite capable of contributing a great deal of expertise and experience to it. But right now, it seems to me that he and Imperva’s Tal Be’ery are, for all their glee at the presumed death of anti-virus, a pair of petulantly twittering budgies trying to pass themselves off as vultures.

David Harley
AVIEN/Small Blue-Green World/Mac Virus/Anti-Malware Testing
ESET Senior Research Fellow