Anti-Virus, now with added Michelangelo

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Apparently it’s all our fault. Again. Not only is anti-virus useless, but we’re responsible for the evolution and dramatic increased volume of malware. According to something I read today “If it wasn’t for the security industry the malware that was written back in the 90’s might still be working today.”

I guess that’s not as dumb as it sounds: we have forced the malware industry to evolve (and vice versa). But you could just as easily say:

“The medical profession is responsible for the evolution and propagation of disease. If it wasn’t for the pharmaceutical industry illnesses that killed people X years ago might still be killing people today.”

And to an extent, it would be true. Some conditions have all but disappeared, at any rate in regions where advanced medical technology is commonplace, but other harder-to-treat conditions have appeared, or at least have achieved recognition.

I can think of plenty of reasons for being less than enthusiastic about the static-signature/malcode-blacklisting approach to malware deterrence, though I get tired of pointing out that commercial AV has moved a long way on from that in the last couple of decades. Even so, if pharmaceutical companies had to generate vaccines at the rate that AV labs have to generate detections (even highly generic detections) we’d all have arms like pincushions.

However, there are clear differences between ‘people’ healthcare and PC therapeutics. Most of us can’t trust ourselves as computer users (or the companies that sell and maintain operating systems and applications) to maintain a sufficiently hygienic environment to eliminate the need to ‘vaccinate’. It’s not that we’re all equally vulnerable to every one of the tens or hundreds of thousands of malicious samples that are seen by AV labs every day. Rather, it’s the fact that a tailored assessment of which malware is a likely problem for each individual system, regardless of provenance, region, and the age of the malware, is just too difficult. It’s kind of like living at the North Pole and taking prophylactic measures in case of Dengue fever, trypanosomiasis and malaria.

Fortunately, new or variant diseases tend not to proliferate at the same rate that malware variants do, and vaccines are not the only way of improving health. In fact, lots of conditions are mitigated by better hygiene, a better standard of living, health-conscious lifestyles and all sorts of more-or-less generic factors. There’s probably a moral there: commonsense computing practices and vitamin supplements – I mean, patches and updates – do reduce exposure to malicious code. It’s worth remembering, though, that even if AV had never caught on, evolving OS and application technologies would probably have reduced our susceptibility to antique boot sector viruses, macro viruses, and DOS .EXE infectors. Is it really likely that they wouldn’t have been replaced by a whole load of alternative malicious technologies?

ESET Senior Research Fellow

Sophos Threatsaurus

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Concentrating on malware and phishing, this is a very decent guide for “average” computer users with little or no security background or knowledge.  Three sections in a kind of dictionary or encyclopedia format: malware and threats, protection technologies, and a (very brief but still useful) history of malware (1949-2012).

Available free for download, and (unlike a great many “free” downloads I could name) you don’t even have to register for endless spam from the company.

Recommended to pass around to family, friends, and your corporate security awareness department.

Security unawareness

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I really don’t understand the people who keep yelling that security awareness is no good.  Here’s the latest rant.

The argument is always the same: security awareness is not 100% foolproof protection against all possible attacks, so you shouldn’t (it is morally wrong to?) even try to teach security awareness in your company.

This guys works for  a security consultancy.  He says that instead of teaching awareness, you should concentrate on audit, monitoring, protecting critical data, segmenting the network, access creep, incident response, and strong security leadership.  (If we looked into their catalogue of seminars, I wonder what we would find them selling?)

Security awareness training isn’t guaranteed to be 100% effective protection.  Neither is AV, audit, monitoring, incident response, etc.  You still use those thing even though they don’t guarantee 100% protection.  You should at least try (seriously) to teach security awareness.  Maybe more than just a single 4 hour session.  (It’s called “defence in depth.”)

Tell you what: I’ll teach security awareness in my company, and you try a social engineering attack.  You may hit some of my people: people aren’t perfect.  But I’ll bet that at least some of my people will detect and report your social engineering attack.  And your data isolation won’t.

Trust me, I didn’t look right as I typed this …

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‘Lying eyes’ are a myth – looking to the right DOESN’T mean you are fibbing.

“Many psychologists believe that when a person looks up to their right they are
likely to be telling a lie.  Glancing up to the left, on the other hand, is said to
indicate honesty.

“Co-author Dr Caroline Watt, from the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘A large
percentage of the public believes that certain eye movements are a sign of lying,
and this idea is even taught in organisational training courses. … The claimed link
between lying and eye movements is a key element of neuro-linguistic

“According to the theory, when right-handed people look up to their right they
are likely to be visualising a ‘constructed’ or imagined event.  In contrast when
they look to their left they are likely to be visualising a ‘remembered’ memory.
For this reason, when liars are constructing their own version of the truth, they
tend to look to the right.”

“Psychologist Prof Wiseman, from the University of Hertfordshire, said: ‘The
results of the first study revealed no relationship between lying and eye
movements, and the second showed that telling people about the claims made by
NLP practitioners did not improve their lie detection skills.’

However, this study raises a much more serious question.  These types of “skills” are being extensively taught (and sought) by law enforcement and other agencies.  How many investigations are being misdirected and delayed by false suppositions based on NLP “techniques”?  More disturbingly, how many people are being falsely accused, dismissed, or charged due to the same questionable “information”?  (As I keep telling my seminars, when you get sidetracked into pursuing the wrong suspect, the real culprit is getting away free.)

(I guess we’ll have to stop watching “The Mentalist” now …)