Beware Anti-Malware Snake Oil

By Mike Rothman

It’s hard to believe, but over the past 24 hours I’ve had 3 separate briefings with companies innovating in the area of anti-malware. Just ask them. Each started the discussion with the self-evident point that the existing malware detection model is broken. Then they each proceeded to describe (at a high level) how what they are doing isn’t anti-virus per se, but something different. Something that detects the new malware we are seeing. They didn’t want to replace the anti-malware engine. They just think they address the areas where traditional anti-malware sucks. Yeah, that’s a big job.

These vendors are not wrong. The existing approach of largely signature-based engines, recently leveraging a cloud extension, is broken. Clearly we need a new approach. True innovation, as opposed to marketing innovation. It’s easy to shoot holes in AV, with its sub-50% detection rate. It’s hard to actually do something sustainably different. We don’t need to poke more holes in AV, we need something that works better.

Having been in this business for 20 years or so, this isn’t the first time attacks have gotten ahead of detection. You could make the case that detection has never caught up. Each time, a new set of innovators emerges with new models and products and capabilities, seemingly built to address the latest and greatest attack.

Right, solving yesterday’s problems tomorrow. But that’s nothing new. It’s the security business as we know it.

The problem is separating the wheat from the chaff. One of the companies I spoke with seems to have a better mousetrap. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. The point is that it’s not the same mousetrap. But it will be an uphill battle for these folks to get a hearing, because endpoint security vendors have been lying to customers for years, saying their products actually stop new attacks. Now customers are highly skeptical, and are not very open to trying something different.

Customers have heard it all before. This is just another cycle, compounded by the incumbents trying to sound different, while entirely focused on milking their cash cows. They will pay lip service to innovation, they always do. In reality they are more focused on reducing their agents’ footprints and improving performance, because those are costing them deals – not on the fact that they can’t detect an eskimo in Alaska.

Another factor is the total farce of anti-malware testing labs. It seems like another pops up every week, commissioned to say one vendor performs better than the others. Awesome. Granted I was born skeptical, but these guys are not helping me believe in anything.

So what to do? Same as it ever was. Endpoint protection is one of many tactics that can help identify and eventually contain malware. Layers are still good. Though we do expect innovation over the next year, so keep your eyes open. There is a pony somewhere in there, it’s just not clear which one is it. The rest will go down in the annals of security history as snake oil. Same as it ever was. There is very little benefit in being early with these new products/companies right now, spending time figuring out what really works.

In other words, if I have an incremental $10, I’m spending it on monitoring and incident response technologies. But you already knew that. Prevention has (mostly) failed us. You know that too. Until some new anti-malware widget is vetted as making a difference (by people you trust), spend your time figuring out what went wrong. There is no lack of material there.

No Related Posts

@PR. Clearly prevention means more than just A/V. That being said, we can’t point to any of the other prevention technologies (NIPS, HIPS, web gateways, etc.) and see a significant difference. I doesn’t mean we don’t do it, since those technologies are effective against script kiddie-class attacks. All of the things you suggest do help. So maybe I’ll amend my statement. I guess I’d spend $9 of my $10 on incident response/forensics. ;-)

@zac, interesting idea. You are basically talking about a self-learning positive security model. Not sure where you’d plan to implement the technology. Is it device level? On the network? Within databases? All of the above? It would be great if something like this became feasible. Plays right into my ideas on Positivity. But it does break the user experience, and as such is probably only applicable to classes of devices where draconian oversight is acceptable. Consumer machines (and even most business devices) not so much.

But food for thought. Thanks guys.

By Mike Rothman

Here’s an idea… and I give it free to help the community:

Employ an expert system (read to the end and you’ll find the caveats)

What I mean is, create a piece of learning software that monitors the system, train it in a lab with all the common business software. If it requires some dedicated computational hardware then make it - add in card, USB/Firewire/etc, specialty RAM/HD… whatever is required. Make it also capable of learning the habits and behaviours of the users and the network activity in general.

Don’t make it just a rules engine either. It has to learn, maybe even talk to and compare notes/lessons with others in it’s working “domain”.

There are a number of ways to do this: completely distributed instances on each workstation/server/device, centralized processing with agents on each system that collect data and enact restrictions on “bad” processes, or a mix of these options.

Caveat #1: aside from the money to develop such a system the client’s going to have to pay to use such a system - particularly if there is custom hardware in use.

Caveat #2: I am guessing this particular type of solution would only work in business/government due to a number of limitation in consumer/residential environments.

I truly doubt even this kind of system would resolve the malware issue… but it would I believe be far better than the signature-base solutions currently available.

By Zac Bergart

Not sure that I’d spend my whole $10 on monitoring and incident response.  (A majority, yes.  All of it, no.)

I have no more respect for antivirus (and antivirus vendors) than you do, but I believe that “Prevention” includes much, much more than A/V.

Prevention should be thought of holistically and include good policies, well-configured systems and networks, continuous user training, intelligent use of cryptography and a host of other measures. 

A/V is no more than one layer of onion skin.  No matter how flimsy and thin that layer seems by itself, put together enough layers [of Prevention] and they do a pretty good job of protecting the onion.

By P. R. Dittrich

Nice piece!

I recently wrote a column identifying 4 lessons to learn from recent high profile attacks. You touch on two: the first is “FUD serves no one” - and it resonates well with your snake oil warning.

The second you mention is “if I have an incremental $10, I’m spending it on monitoring and incident response technologies”. I agree with where you want to spend your budget, but I think there’s a better place to spend it.

Spend it on talent. I’m not certain we need more monitoring and IR technologies as much as we need (numerically) more skilled security staff. We simply have too many understaffed operational networks. Our adversaries aren’t outperforming our elites so much as they are finding ample mismatches among the huge number of nets run by not so elites.

If you’re interested in the column it’s at

By Security Skeptic

If you like to leave comments, and aren’t a spammer, register for the site and email us at and we’ll turn off moderation for your account.