Hiding in Plain Sight

“Charity, dear Miss Prism, charity! None of us are perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts.” (Dr. Chasuble, in The Importance of Being Earnest)

Not long ago, I was – inevitably – asked a number of questions about NSA and Prism, one of which was “Can you protect yourself against it somehow?”

To which I responded: “I suspect that effective self-concealment from SIGINT functionality like ECHELON is probably not only out of reach of the average person, but might also actually attract more active investigation.”

And it seems I wasn’t far wrong. Subsequent revelations indicate that – as Lisa Vaas of Sophos (among many others) observed – Using Tor and other means to hide your location piques NSA’s interest in you. That works because people who hide their location will be assumed to be non-Americans, and those of us outside the US are considered fair game even if we’re communicating with Americans. Still, there’s a sufficiency of loopholes that make USians talking to Usians almost equally justifiable as targets.

In particular, it turns out that “all communications that are enciphered or reasonably believed to contain secret meaning” are also fair game, even if they’re known to be domestic. But the grounds for hanging onto harvested information apparently include communications containing “significant foreign intelligence information”, “evidence of a crime”, “technical data base information” (such as encrypted communications), or “information pertaining to a threat of serious harm to life or property”. You might wonder how many electronic communications aren’t encrypted these days at some stage during their transmission… But I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether the NSA is exceeding its brief by paying too much attention to too many all-American transactions, since apparently the UK’s GCHQ is tapping every fibre-optic cable it can lay hands on and sharing its data with our Transatlantic cousins.

It might seem strange that the security community isn’t getting more worked up about all this, but that’s probably because none of us really believe that government and law enforcement agencies worldwide aren’t carrying out information gathering and analysis to the fullest extent that their resources permit. The problem with establishing a balance between the right to privacy of the individual and the right to security of the majority is not really about the gathering of information. Not that there’s much likelihood of the forty-niners (I’m thinking Gold Rush, not football) of the world’s intelligence agencies giving up panning the gravel beds of the world’s data streams.

What really matters is (a) what they do with the nuggets and (b) what they do with stuff that isn’t nuggets. It would be nice to think that where legislation limiting the State’s right to surveillance fails because of the sheer volume of data, legislation limiting the use that can be made of information gathered collaterally would at least partly compensate. However, it’s none too clear that this is the case right now in the Five Eyes community, far less among states with less of a tradition of observing democratic and libertarian principles. In the meantime, if you’re at all concerned about the privacy of your data, you might want to consider John Leyden’s suggestion of a combination of carrier pigeon and one-time pad. Bearing in mind that if an out-of-band communication does come to the attention of the authorities, it’s likely to attract attention rather than deflect it. Which is where I came in.

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” (Miss Prism, in The Importance of Being Earnest)


REVIEW: “Consent of the Networked”, Rebecca MacKinnon

BKCNSNTW.RVW   20121205

“Consent of the Networked”, Rebecca MacKinnon, 2012, 978-0-465-02442-1, U$26.99/C$30.00
%A   Rebecca MacKinnon
%C   387 Park Ave. South, New York, NY   10016-8810
%D   2012
%G   978-0-465-02442-1 0-465-02442-1
%I   Basic Books
%O   U$26.99/C$30.00 special.markets@perseusbooks.com
%O  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465024421/robsladesinterne
%O   http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465024421/robsladesin03-20
%O   Audience n Tech 1 Writing 1 (see revfaq.htm for explanation)
%P   294 p.
%T   “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom”

In neither the preface nor the introduction is there a clear statement of the intent of this work.  The closest comes buried towards the end of the introduction, in a sentence which states “This book is about the new realities of power, freedom, and control in the Internet Age.”  Alongside other assertions in the opening segments, one can surmise that MacKinnon is trying to point out the complexities of the use, by countries or corporations, of technologies which enhance either democracy or control, and the desirability of a vague concept which she refers to as “Internet Freedom.”

Readers may think I am opposed to the author’s ideas.  That is not the case.  However, it is very difficult to critique a text, and suggest whether it is good or bad, when there is no clear statement of intent, thesis, or terminology.

Part one is entitled “Disruptions.”  Chapter one outlines a number of stories dealing with nations or companies promising freedom, but actually censoring or taking data without informing citizens or users.  The “digital commons,” conceptually akin to open source but somewhat more nebulous (the author does, in fact, confuse open source and open systems), is promoted in chapter two.

Part two turns more directly to issues of control.  Chapter three concentrates on factors the Republic of China uses to strengthen state censorship.  Variations on this theme are mentioned in chapter four.

Part three examines challenges to democracy.  Chapter five lists recent US laws and decisions related to surveillance and repression of speech.  The tricky issue of making a distinction between repression of offensive speech on the one hand, and censorship on the other, is discussed in chapter six.  The argument made about strengthening censorship by taking actions against intellectual property infringement, in chapter seven, is weak, and particularly in light of more recent events.

Part four emphasizes the role that corporations play in aiding national censorship and surveillance activities.  Chapter eight starts with some instances of corporations aiding censorship, but devolves into a review of companies opposed to “network neutrality.”  Similarly, chapter nine notes corporations aiding surveillance.  Facebook and Google are big, states chapter ten, but the evil done in stories given does not inherently relate to size.

Part five asks what is to be done.  Trust but verify, says (ironically) chapter eleven: hold companies accountable.  MacKinnon mentions that this may be difficult.   Chapter twelve asks for an Internet Freedom Policy, but, since the author admits the term can have multiple meanings, the discussion is fuzzy.  Global Information Governance is a topic that makes chapter thirteen apposite in terms of the current ITU (International Telecommunications Union) summit, but the focus in the book is on the ICANN (Internet Committee on Assigned Names and Numbers) top level domain sale scandals.  The concluding chapter fourteen, on building a netizen-centric Internet is not just fuzzy, but full of warm fuzzies.

There are a great many interesting news reports, stories, and anecdotes in the book.  There is a great deal of passion, but not much structure.  This can make it difficult to follow topical threads.  This book really adds very little to the debates on these topics.

copyright, Robert M. Slade   2013   BKCNSNTW.RVW   20121205


Risk analysis, traffic analysis, and unusual factors

Canadian terrorists strike again: apparently we are responsible for taking down a major piece of transportation infrastructure, vis, the I-5 bridge over the Skagit river at Mount Vernon.

A friend in Seattle assures me that, while he is disappointed in us, he holds no grudges, and is willing to warn us if he hears of any drone strikes planned for north of the border.

(Allow me, for a moment, to examine this “oversized load” on which everyone is blaming the collapse.  Image 2 in the slide deck [if they don't change it] is this “oversized load.”  You will notice that it is basically an empty box with the two sides missing, and has, relatively, zero structural rigidity.  If a ding from that kind of load brought the bridge down [and didn't even collapse the load itself], the bridge was definitely unsafe.)

I drive that route regularly, and, when I heard that a bridge had gone down, that bridge was the first one I thought of.  I have always felt unsafe crossing it.  There is a wrongness about it you can just feel.

It’s also ugly.  And I am reminded of an essay by an engineer who said that bridges were the most beautiful products of all forms of engineering.  A properly designed bridge has curves, and those curves just feel right.  They are beautiful.

So, if you ever have questions about a bridge, and you don’t have enough facts to go on, just look at it.

If it’s ugly, don’t cross it.


Fake security can hurt you …

“Fraudster James McCormick has been jailed for 10 years for selling fake bomb detectors. … One invoice showed sales of £38m over three years to Iraq, the judge said.”


Closer to our technical field, we know about the pure fraud of fake AV, of course.  And there are plenty of companies out there selling shoddy products.  But there are also the “consultants” out there doing desultory work, and spending more time on building a client base than doing any research or analysis.  (I recently ran into a monitoring and surveillance “expert” who had no idea about the problems with IP-connected video cameras.)  Some of them even hold CISSP certificates.

This is basically the whole reason behind the certificate: to have a standard that allows people to expect a minimal level of competence.  It’s not perfect, never will be, and there are other attempts (so far seemingly even less successful) at doing the same thing.  We need to assist the process, where we can, even if we don’t feel like pushing the ISC2 “brand.”

Do what you can to help.  Even if it is just pointing out fixable errors.

(When was the last time you submitted a question to the exam committee?)


Why BC holds the record for “World’s Weirdest Politicians”

Whenever political pundits get together, they all start the competition for “our politicians are more corrupt/venal/just plain weird than yours.”  Whenever anyone from BC enters the fray, everyone else concedes.

Herewith our latest saga.

The ruling “Today’s BC Liberal Party” is finding itself polling behind the NDP.  (Do not let the word “liberal” in the party name fool you.  Whereas pretty much every other liberal party would be centre-left, the BC Liberals are, politically, somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun.)  The liberals are runing attack ads stating that, twelve years ago, the leader of the NDP backdated a memo.

(No, I’m not making this up.)

The Liberals have just released another version of the same attack ad, this time using a snippet of footage from the recent leaders debate.  Trouble is, the media consortium that ran the debate has copyright on the video of the debate, and all parties agreed that none of the material would be used for political purposes.

The Liberals, called on their use of the video, have refused to take it down.

(How old do you have to be to understand the meaning of “copyright infringement?”)

(I am eagerly awaiting the next installment of this story.  I assume the lawyers paid for by Today’s BC Liberals [or possibly by public money: that's happened before] will argue the provisions of “fair use,” and claim that the attack ads are commentary, or even educational …)


Password reset questions

Recently therewas some discussion about “self-service” password resets.  The standard option, of course, is to have some sort of “secret question” that the true account holder should be able to answer.  You know: super-secret stuff like your pet’s name.  (Yes, Paris Hilton, I’m talking about you.)

The discussion was more detailed, turning to policy and options, and asked whether you should turn off “custom” questions, and stick to a list of prepared questions.

I would definitely allow custom questions.  The standard lists never seem to give me options that I can both a) remember, and b) that wouldn’t be immediately obvious to anyone who was able to find out some minimal information about me.

If I can make up my own question, I can ask myself what my favourite burial option would be.  The answer, “encryption,” is something I will remember to my dying day, and nobody else is ever going to guess.  (Well, those who have read the “Dictionary of Information Security” might guess that one, so I guess I won’t actually use it.)

Go ahead: try and guess what is the only pain reliever that works for me.

What sits under my desk and keeps the computers running in the case of a power failure?

What is Gloria’s favourite ice cream flavour?

Finish the following sentence: Don’t treat Rob as your _______ ___.  (This is a two-factor authentication: you also have to fill in the standard response to that statement.)

The thing is, all of these oddball questions have special meaning for Gloria and I, but for very few other people in the world.  They rely on mistakes or quirks that have become “family phrases.”  For example, what do you need before bed to get to sleep?  Answer: “warum melek,” coming from an elderly lady of our acquaintance from a northern European background.

Yeah, I like “custom questions” a lot.

(OK, yes, you do have to do a bit of security awareness training to indicate that “who is my sweetie poo” may not be as secret as some people seem to think …)


“New” ideas about distributed computing?

The CEO of BitTorrent thinks we should think about using distributed computing to deal with upgrade issues over the Internet.

It sounds like a good idea.  So good, that you wonder why someone hasn’t thought of it before.  Well, surprise, surprise (unless you know Slade’s Law of Computer History), someone has.  How about Shoch and Hupp, who worked on the idea at Xerox PARC in the late 70s, and reported on it in 1980 and 1982?  Or Fred Cohen, who was quite vocal about using “good” viruses in the late 80s, and mentioned it in one of his earlier popular books?  Or Vesselin Bontchev, who, in the 90s, gave a detailed outline of what you have to do to make it work


S. Korea Cyber Attack Crashes Navigation Devices. Time to fuzz your GPS?

South Korea suffered a major cyber attack yesterday. The origin of the attack seems to be China at the moment, but that is far from being definite.

I happened to be in one of the (several) cyber security operation centers, by pure coincidence. I had a chance to see events unravel in real time. Several banks have been hit (including the very large shinhan bank) and a few broadcasting channels.

The damage is hard to assess, since it’s now in everyone’s advantage to blame the cyber attack on anything from a system crash to the coffee machine running out of capsules. Budget and political moves will dominate most of the data that will be released in the next few days.
It’s clear, however, that the damage substantial. I reached out to a few friends in technical positions at various MSPs and most had a sleepless night. They’ve been hit hard.

The most interesting part of this incident, in my opinion, was a report on car GPS crashing while the attack was taking place. I haven’t seen a news report about that yet, and I couldn’t personally verify it (as I mentioned, I was stationary at the time, watching the frantic cyber-security team getting a handle on a difficult situation) but this is making rounds in security forums and a couple of friends confirmed to me that their car navigation system crashed and had to be restarted, at the exact time the attack was taking place.

The most likely explanation is that the broadcasting companies, who send TPEG data to the GPS devices (almost every car in Korea has a GPS device, almost all get real-time updates via TPEG), had sent malformed data which caused the devices to crash. This data could have been just a result of a domino effect from the networks crashing, or it could have been a very sophisticated proof-of-concept by the attacker to see if they can create a distruption. Traffic in Seoul is bad even on a normal day; without GPS devices it can be a nightmare.

Which brings up an interesting point about fuzzing network devices. TPEG fuzzers have been available for a while now (beSTORM has a TPEG module, and you can easily write your own TPEG fuzzer). The difficult part is getting the GPS device to communicate with the fuzzing generator; this is something the GPS developer can do (but probably won’t) but it is also possible for a government entity to do the necessary configuration to make that happen, given the proper resources or simply by forcing the vendors to cooperate.

The choice of the attacker to bring down the broadcasting networks might be deliberate: other than knocking TV and radio off the air (an obvious advantage in a pre-attack strike) the broadcasting networks control many devices who rely on their data. Forcing them to send malformed data to crash a variety of devices can have interesting implications. If I was a little more naive, I would predict that this will push governments around the world to focus more on fuzzing to discover these kind of vulnerabilities before they see their adversaries exploit them. But in the world we live in, they will instead throw around the phrase “APT” and buy more “APT detection products” (an oximoron if I’ve ever heard one). Thank god for APT, the greatest job saving invention since bloodletting.

An detailed analysis of the attack here:



The Users are smarter than we give them credit for

So, my boss had asked me last week to read the Mandiant report and see how these Chinese APT1 attacks could be detected on a network both during and after an attack. After reading the report, I was pretty saddened by just how little has been done in the last 20 years in Infosec. The tactics and protocols used to steal data are old (decades old) and stale. My initial reaction was, and is, that user’s are still not being properly educated AND held responsible for their actions. We’re letting the users off too easily! Corporations are still trying to solve a people problem with software or appliances.

Take a look at the top 15 Security startups of 2013 (http://www.businessinsider.com/15-most-important-security-startups-2013-1?op=1). Now, look at how many of these software products ASSUME that the user will do the wrong thing and click on a link or an attachment. We have sandbox technology so that when the user downloads the malware, software can fix it (remember Pelican SafeTNet from late 90′s early 2000′s). We have software that steers employees away from bad websites (how does this work? A list of bad sites won’t work…downloading the page and running static checks won’t work…I dunno…would be interesting to hear more, but I digress).

Look, if your kids were prone to starting fires while cooking food, is the fix to create a million dollar stove that auto-senses when the heat is too high or when the smell of burnt food is in the air and automatically shuts down? Or, is the fix to teach your kids the proper way to use the stove? If I was a Corporate Security officer, I would make user education a top priority. I would even be willing to bring in a company that specialized in user security education (train the trainer type stuff). That would be money well spent. Every new user gets a class in computer security complete with a hands-on lab, test, and an Acceptable Use policy that they sign after completion. Existing users have to “re-certify” every year when they get a performance review.

Next, hold the user accountable for their actions after completing said training. In this day and age, a compromised computer inside the network is a license to steal. Having a computer with Internet access is a serious responsibility. If you mess up and do what you were trained NOT to do, then you are punished. Keep messing up and you get your pink slip. The user’s aren’t as stupid as we make them out to be. If their actions impact their bottom line, they will act accordingly. If we don’t hold the user responsible, why do they have any reason to change their behavior?

And, on a related tangent, maybe I’m just too old school but I don’t understand why a company would allow their employees (paid to do a Corporate-related job) to surf social media, p2p, job-search sites, dating sites, web-based email, etc. etc.




Western society is WEIRD [1]

(We have the OT indicator to say that something is off topic.  This isn’t, because ethics and sociology is part of our profession, but it is a fairly narrow area of interest for most.  We don’t have a subject-line indicator for that  :-)

This article, and the associated paper, are extremely interesting in many respects.  The challenge to whole fields of social factors (which are vital to proper management of security) has to be addressed.  We are undoubtedly designing systems based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of the one constant factor in our systems: people.

(I suppose that, as long as the only people we interact with are WEIRD [1] westerners, we are OK.  Maybe this is why we are flipping out at the thought of China?)

(I was particularly interested in the effects of culture on actual physical perception, which we have been taught is hard wired.)

[1] – WEIRD, in the context of the paper, stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies


Read this book. If you have anything to do with security, read this book.

I have been reviewing security books for over twenty years now.  When I think of how few are really worthwhile that gets depressing.

However, Ross Anderson is always worth reading.  And when Ross Anderson first published “Security Engineering” I was delighted to be able to tell everyone that it was a worthwhile read.  If you are, in any way, interested in, or working in, the field of security, there is something there for you.  Probably an awful lot.

When Ross Anderson made the first edition available online, for free, and then published the second edition, I was delighted to be able to tell everyone that they should buy the second edition, but, if they didn’t trust me, they should read the first edition free, and then buy the second edition because it was even better.

Now Ross has made the second edition available, online, for free.

Everyone should read it, if they haven’t already done so.

(I am eagerly awaiting the third edition  :-)


Memory lane …

I ordered a new computer before Christmas, and there have been delays getting it.  Today the shop called and said that the one I ordered (with 4 Gigs of RAM) was still short, but they did have one with 6 Gigs, if I was willing to pay an extra ten bucks.  So I said fine.

Got off the phone and told Gloria about it.  She asked “How many Commodores is that?” since I still have a Commodore 64 in the “computer museum” trunk.

32,000.  Give or take a few for rounding purposes.  For ten bucks, the equivalent memory of 32,000 Commodore 64 computers.

We work in a bizarre field.


Online forum rule haikus

On the CISSPforum we were discussing precepts for getting along and keeping the discussions meaningful.  Somebody started listing rules, so I started casting them as haikus.  That prompted a few more.

I wondered if these were only for that group, but then realized most of them were applicable to online discussions of whatever type.  So, herewith:


Create your own space
Meaningful content only
Comes to those who post.

Silence calls silence
Lurkers don’t disturb quiet
Sleep beckons as well.

The posts are boring?
Raise topic of interest
Thread starter lauded.

Forum like sewer:
What you get out of forum
Depends on input.

Being creative
Is much better than being
Tagged as complainer.

These are your colleagues.
Why are you so much  better
That they must start first?

The forum that is
Is not what must always be.
Build a better world.

Friday is not for
Building new realities.
Your colleagues would sleep.


Then some other chimed in:

I remember trust
It disappeared so quickly
I guess we were fools

Pointing to resource
Always appreciated
Who can search the whole?

Putting platitudes
into pleasing haiku
removes sting of truth

Now you’re getting it.
Format is everything.  (Well,
And maybe context  :-)

friday gratitude
is here at last for resting
ignoring infosec

Friday at last! Time for
Bottles of overpriced wine.
Why’m I still at work???

Request not correct.
Reformat for this thread.
Please resubmit now.

Jangles cosmic harmonies
Til balance achieved.


Secure Awareness mottoes and one-liners

From various forums, mailing lists, discussions and other sources (many of which exist only in my febrile imagination), herewith a bit of a compilation of mottoes that can be used as part of a security awareness campaign:

No-one in Africa wants to GIVE anyone their money or gold.

Microsoft/Google/a Russian oil magnate/VW/BMW/etc certainly does not want to GIVE anyone money/a car/etc.

A stunning Russian blonde DOES NOT want to marry you.

If it sounds too good to be true, IT IS.

A web site, Email message, IM or tweet that tells you you need to install security software IS LYING.

Just because it’s in a Google search result or an “ad by Google” does NOT mean it is safe.

If the options seem to be “Click OK/Run/Install” or “turn off the computer”, TURN OFF THE COMPUTER.

Did your friend really send you that message?

Is your friend really as smart about computer security as you think?
A. No    B. Not at all    C. Well and truly not    D. All the above

You didn’t win the Irish lottery.

Your bank doesn’t want you to change your password.

Don’t be Phish Phood.

Pwnly Phools Phall for Phishing.

Think, THINK every click.

Need extra money?  Want to work from home?  Getting a job from a spammer is NOT A GOOD IDEA!!!

When did you last make a backup?  Do you want to do [period of time] worth of work all over again?

Report the suspicious, not the strange.

If the bank thinks your online account has been hacked, they won’t warn you by email.

Being sociable doesn’t mean being totally open. Be careful what you disclose via social media.

If someone wants/offers to make something really easy for you, there is a way that can be used against you.

Hide your ‘cheese’ (get a router).

A patch a day keeps hackers away (keep your OS and apps up to date).

Always wear a helmet (install a firewall/antivirus package).

The great unknown ain’t so great (only use software you can trust).

Use sunscreen to prevent burns (lock down your OS and apps).

Make 007 jealous (learn to use additional security tools).

“Password” is not a password (use strong passwords).

Keep your skeletons in the closet (protect your personal data).

Don’t be a dork (be smart when you’re on-line).

Keep your dukes up (stay informed and vigilant).

Infosec is like a sewer: what you get out of it, depends on what you put into it.


Some are recently from the #InfosecMotherlyAdvice tag on Twitter:

Don’t click … it’ll get infected.

Don’t take cookies from strangers.

Idle systems are a botnet’s playground.

A backup in hand is worth two in the cloud.

While you’re connected to my network you’ll live by my firewall rule.

A backup a day keeps data loss away.

We’d better get you a bigger firewall – you’ll grow into it.

Close the security holes, you’re letting all our sensitive data out.

If your system gets compromised and crashes, don’t come emailing to me.

Always encrypt your data. you never know when you’ll have an accident.

If everybody else clicked on links in emails, would you do that too?

Either you’re inside the firewall, or outside the firewall! Don’t leave it open!

Install your patches if you want your security to grow up big and strong.

Don’t put that in your browser, you don’t know where it’s been.

Someday your bluescreen will freeze like that!

It’s all fun and games until someone loses sensitive data.

Only you can prevent Internet meltdowns.


Official (ISC)2 Guide to the CISSP CBK

Recently, on the CISSPforum, there was some discussion of the new, third edition of the Official (ISC)2 Guide to the CISSP CBK (which, I note, is pretending to be available as an ebook for only ten bucks).  At the end of one post, one of the correspondents stated that he was “leaning towards buying the new book.”

First, lemme say that, for those who haven’t yet got the cert, I do recommend the “Official Guide” as my first choice.  (Harris is easier to read, but does contain *lots* of errors, and I tell my seminar candidates that I refuse to answer any question that starts out “Shon Harris says …”   :-)

However, on the other hand … why would anyone who has the cert buy the guide?  Of course, I am speaking from the perspective of someone who does read the source literature (and I am aware that all too many of my colleagues do not).

I also recall at least two seminar attendees who actually did have the cert.  Furthermore, they were consultants, and thus going on their own dime for the course.  The reason given was the same: they charged by the hour, so any time spent upgrading was time they could not charge.  Therefore, regularly attending the seminar was the fastest, and therefore, in their situation cheapest, way to ensure they were current.

So, yes, I can see that some people would want to get the guide as a quick check.  (In that regard, I would tend to recommend ISMH instead of the guide, but …)  But I still find it kind of odd …


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: bit.ly/XE76eS @dharleyatESET: bit.ly/13e1TJW

@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