Tag Archives: Anti-Malware

The edge of reason(ableness): AV Testing and the new creation scientists

First, let me start out by saying that I am in a bad mood. I probably shouldn’t write when I’m in this mood, because I’m in danger of just ranting, but I’m going to anyway. I’m in a bad mood because I am pretty fed up that some people are so deliberately trying to destroy something I’ve personally (along with many others) worked very hard to build in the last couple of years.

I’m in a bad mood because writing this is distracting me from the many other things that I need to do, and get paid to do.

I’m in a bad mood because I’m fed up with hearing that I, and others like me, have no right to comment on things that fall directly within my realm of expertise (and goodness knows, that’s a narrow enough realm) – and that if I do, it’s simply self-interested nonsense.

Secondly, let me also point out that although I’m now going to reveal that, yes, I’m talking about Anti-Malware Testing, and may mention AMTSO, I’m not speaking on behalf of AMTSO, nor my employer, nor anyone else, but me, myself and I (oh, that there were so many of us).

So, “What’s the rumpus?*” Well, in what has become an almost unbelievable farce, the last few weeks have seen mounting attacks on the AMTSO group and what it does.

For some background – those who are interested can read these articles.



There are some very good points in the second (Krebs) article, although cantankerous is not something that I would say characterizes AMTSO all that well – as Lysa Myers has pointed out ‘AMTSO is made of people‘, and I think the generally negative tone employed is a shame. The first (Townsend) article is way more problematic; there’s just so much wrong with Mr Townsend’s thinking that I don’t really know where to start. Fortunately, Kurt Wismer has already done a great job of responding here, and David Harley an equally competent job here.

So why my response? Well, probably because I certainly am cantankerous.

I’m also, almost uniquely in this industry (David Harley is another), formerly one of those “users” that Mr Townsend is so adamant should be controlling the process of AMTSO’s output – indeed, the whole of AVIEN was set up in the year 2000 as an organisation of interested, non-vendor employed, users – albeit users who knew something about anti-malware issues. We were users responsible for protecting large enterprises, who wanted to be able to share breaking anti-virus information without the interference of Vendors or the noise of such cesspools as alt.comp.virus. We wanted good, reliable information.

I, like David Harley, later joined the industry as a Vendor, but I still understand what it is to be a user, and that was also a huge consideration in the setup of AMTSO – as so many have said before, and I want to reiterate here, bad testing of anti-virus products hurts everyone, the user most especially.

However, this debate is much more than just one on which we can ‘agree to differ’  – like whether Germany or Spain has the better football team might be – it’s much more fudamental than that.

Indeed, the only real analogy that comes close is that of the battle currently raging between the so called  faith based ‘science’ of creationists (let’s not prevaricate, Intelligent Design is just a euphemism for Creationism), and the research based science of evolutionary biologists and so on.

On the one hand, you have anti-malware researchers, professional testers and so on; people who study malware every day, who constantly deal with the realities of malware exploiting users, and who understand better than anyone the challenges that we face in tackling malware – if you like, the “Richard Dawkinses of anti-malware” (though I certainly would not claim to match his eloquence nor intelligence) –  and on the other hand, we have those outside the industry who say that we’re all wrong, that we’re just a “self-perpetuating cesspool populated by charlatans” (yet none the less, a cesspool at which the media feeds most voraciously), that nobody needs AV, and that everything the AV community does or says is bunk.

What I find so extraordinary (in both cases) is that those who are most in a position to provide trusted commentary on the subject are so ignored, in favour of those who have shrill, but ill-informed voices. Why is it that information from a tester; who may have just woken up one morning and decided to ‘test’ antivirus products; is taken on faith as being correct and true; and yet, when a group of professional people give up their time voluntarily, and work together to try to produce some documentation that sets out the ways in which anti-malware products can be tested effectively (and, no, that has nothing in particular to do with the WildList) and reliably, is it so violently decried as self-interested nonsense. It’s a terrible shame that science is so deliberately ignored in the face of popular opinion. Unfortunately, millions of people CAN be wrong, and often are.

AMTSO is not about dictating truth, but rather pointing out ways in which truth can be reliably found (and importantly, where it cannot).

I refuse to lie down and take it when someone tries to tell me that I’ve no right to point out the truth – and I’m not talking about truth based on some millenia old scripture, but real, hard, repeatable, scientifically verifiable, researched fact. If that makes me as unpopular as Richard Dawkins is to a creationist, then so be it.

If you’re interested in understanding why anti-virus testing is so important (and why so many professional testers participate in AMTSO) then, please, do have a read of the AMTSO scriptures er… documents, here.

Andrew Lee – AVIEN CEO, Cantankerous AV researcher.

* If you’ve not seen the excellent movie “Miller’s Crossing” you won’t know where that quote comes from.

(Thanks to Graham Cluley for pointing out that the first link didn’t go to the correct page.)


Breaking up is never easy…LoveBug, the day after.

The LoveBug/Loveletter/Iloveyou worm (much more geekishly called VBS/Loveletter.a@mm by, well, AV geeks) has become one of those legendary events in malware history. The fact that 10 years on we’re still writing about it. Not only that, but many of us will remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we first heard about it – in fact many more might remember it than were actually there :).

Still, I remember exactly where I was – I was in Reading, at Microsoft headquarters attending a security seminar and my Blackberry (one of the very early ones, with a greyscale LCD screen), started to go off regularly. I grabbed the next train back to Dorset, got into work, and spent the next ten hours ensuring that nothing bad was going to happen on our network. Many other people have written about their memories of the day – 10 years ago yesterday – including Graham Cluley and Mikko Hypponen, and indeed our own David Harley, and I’ve nothing to add to that. You see – we were using Lotus Notes (~shudder~) and not one single system got infected – although we did get a tremendous amount of email, which very quickly got blocked once we knew the attachment name. No, I remember the Loveletter for what happened 10 years ago TODAY, the 5th of May. And, it is a tale I felt worth sharing, about how even good information about one situation is not necessarily applicable across the board.

Although they were not directly under my responsibility, my team had involvement with the IT systems of all the schools across Dorset, and while none of the systems we were responsible for were affected by Loveletter, this was not true of other systems within the schools, which were under supervision of the school’s own IT personnel. On the morning of the 5th of May, I sent out a message to everyone on our network to the effect that “Our network was not affected by the VBS/Loveletter worm, and no damage resulted from any mails that were opened within our network, but we request that you remain vigilant and avoid opening attachments that are not work related. We also suggest that you install an Anti-virus product at home, and ensure that any mails with the subject “ILOVEYOU” are deleted without being opened” This was the very last time I ever sent out such a message, not because it was incorrect, but because the information ended up being spread outside of our organisation – particularly in schools, where I’m sure people felt they were being helpful by forwarding my email – at which point I got several very angry phonecalls and emails abusing me for my lack of intelligence. The reason? The information was only true of our organisation, and those whose networks DID end up getting affected (Loveletter also deleted .jpg/jpeg images) were angry that I so downplayed the risks of the worm while they were watching it eat through all the images on their servers and workstations. In fact, many of the schools were running Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, and once their systems were infected, many pupils lost work.

This highlights the fact that information is often specific, it isn’t necessarily relevant to all situations. Think of it like fire extinguishers; they have specific uses on specific types of fires – don’t go spraying a water extinguisher onto an electrical or fat fire, you will get burned.

User education is often very difficult, and one of the reasons it is so is that there are so many variables, so many different ways that things can go wrong. In a way the Loveletter worm was one of the first Phishing attacks – it combined clever social engineering with malicious code to steal passwords. David Harley and I have written fairly extensively on Phishing, including examining whether the sort of ‘anti-phishing’ quizzes we’ve seen on some security sites are actually of any use. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out – there’s far too little common sense, too much irrelevant information, and it takes (literally) a lifetime to become a security expert; you can’t expect people to learn in five minutes.

As David mentioned yesterday, AVIEN was formed out of the need for non-vendors working in the AV industry to get fast and accurate information about spreading threats – I was glad to find that the instances where such information got so wildly misconstrued as in my Loveletter incident were few and far between. AVIEN also has its 10th birthday this year – more of that later in the year.

As an aside, I later applied for a job at one of the schools that had been affected, imagine how my heart sank when my interviewer turned out to be one of the people who had written me an angry email…no, I didn’t get the job! Anyway, it’s all water under the bridge, and since it is the 5th of May, my greetings to all my Mexican/Southern Californian friends, who will no doubt be regretting their today’s activities tomorrow morning.

Andrew Lee CISSP
AVIEN CEO / CTO K7 Computing

Millennium Falcon crash and burn

Ironically, we seem to be seeing more date-related issues this month than we did at the start of the noughties, unless The Register is making this all up, which doesn’t seem likely.


[And this one:

It’s not really surprising: this is a more-or-less accidental cluster of somewhat similar bugs, as far as I can see. It’s certainly not an industry-wide issue that was foreseen years in advance and therefore attracted serious proactive research and remediation.

In fact, if there’s a lesson here, it’s one for the people who dismiss the entire Y2K remediation issue as hype and wasted resources. Well, there was a great deal of hype around at that time (did anyone actually see a Y2K virus?), and a number of consultants made money out of advising IT people on the ground to do what they were already doing.

However, given the (short-term) impact of this handful of unanticipated (but fairly easily fixed) bugs, I think it’s reasonable to assume that if system administrators and support technicians all over the globe hadn’t done that proactive remediative work, the first weeks of the new millennium would have been a lot more dramatic.

Like Ross Anderson (http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/Papers/y2k.pdf), I doubt if the sky would have fallen, but some of the consequent issues would have been harder and more expensive to fix reactively.

Chief Operations Officer, AVIEN
Director of Malware Intelligence, ESET

Also blogging at:

The Kyoto Protocol

Over the next few days, many of the Anti-malware industry’s researchers will be gathered in Kyoto Japan, for the 12th Annual AVAR conference (http://www.aavar.org/avar2009/). Apart from being a beautiful place, in a wonderful country, I hope it will be an occasion for interesting discussion and the opening of new ideas. There are topics as wide as system virtualisation and cloud computing, packers and obfuscation, social networking and information security policy. Quite a few AVIEN members, including me and David Harley will be speaking at the conference. We’ll blog the best bits here 😉

Andrew Lee CISSP