This week’s WSJ.com column (subscription only) is about mobile viruses — or the lack of them. First off I talked about CommWarrior, the virus any of you with a Symbian phone and Bluetooth switched no will have been pinged with anywhere in the world.
CommWarrior isn’t new: It has been around since March 2005. But this isn’t much comfort if you find yourself — as a lunch companion and I did — bombarded by a dozen attempts to infect our phones before the first course had arrived. So is CommWarrior just the thin end of a long wedge? Yes, if you listen to the Internet-security industry. “I can personally assure you that mobile threats are reality, and we have to start taking our mobile security seriously,” says Eric Everson, who admittedly has a stake in talking up the threat, given that he is founder of Atlanta-based MyMobiSafe, which offers cellphone antivirus protection at $4 a month.
But the security industry has been saying this for years about viruses — usually lumped together under the catchall “malware” — and, despite lots of scare stories, I couldn’t find any compelling evidence that they are actually causing us problems beyond those I experienced in the Italian restaurant.
For reasons of space quite a bit of material had to be dropped, so I’m adding it here for anyone who’s interested. Apologies to those sources who didn’t get their voices heard.
Symantec, F-Secure Security Labs and other antivirus companies call FlexiSPY a virus (though, strictly speaking, it’s a Trojan, meaning it must be installed by the user, who thinks the program does something harmless). “In terms of damaging the user, the most serious issue at the moment is commercial spyware applications such as FlexiSPY,” says Peter Harrison, of a new U.K.-based mobile-security company, UMU Ltd.
Not surprisingly, however, Mr. Raihan isn’t happy to have his product identified and removed by cellphone antivirus software, though he says his protests have fallen on deaf ears. “We are a godsend to them,” he says of the mobile antivirus companies. “They are fear-mongering as there is not a significant problem with viruses in the mobile space.”
How often do antivirus manufacturers admit that their products are not really up to the challenge anymore?
The only folks I know who do this are those from Trend Micro. I interviewed Steve Chang, its founder, a couple of years back, and he made it clear that antivirus software can’t keep everything out. But it doesn’t always come across quite as frankly as it should. This BusinessWorld piece today makes clear, in an interview with Ah Sin Ang, Trend Micro Incorporated’s regional marketing manager for South Asia, asks the important question, (is there) yet no antivirus software than can protect us from phishing?
Ang’s reply could be more thorough, but it’s probably more honest than some of Trend Micros’ competitors: If you are aware that banks don’t send you these types of emails, you’ll be protected. That’s why Trend Micro emphasizes public education.
He also makes the valid point that ‘antivirus’ is not a particularly useful term anymore: Although anti-virus is a general term for Internet security, we like an antivirus software to clarify what that software means – does it include protection against Trojans, spyware, adware and hackers? Does it block unhealthy sites? Once you get infected, there may be a lot of pop-ups featuring pornographic and gambling sites. A good integrated software must also allow filtering. When you filter, it must also be able to filter spam and phishing.
I think the bottom line is that antivirus software is not doing what its customers think it’s doing. Most of us can’t tell the difference between a worm and a Trojan, and tend to assume that antivirus software will also protect us if we click on something in an email that takes us to an infected site. This is no longer true, if it ever was. Instead, the software gives us a false sense of security. Would we better off not having it, and instead educating ourselves about threats?
This week’s New Scientist confirms
what readers of this blog already knew about the growing imbalance in the virus arms race. Antivirus specialists, the mag says, are fighting a losing battle against malicious code like viruses and worms. Research undertaken at Hewlett-Packard’s labs in Bristol, UK, is the first to evaluate the effectiveness of antiviral software. It shows that the way we fight viruses is fundamentally flawed, because viruses spread faster than antivirus patches can be distributed. By the time the antivirus software catches up, the damage has already been done.
Hewlett-Packard researcher Matthew Williamson designed a computer model to mimic the way in which viruses spread, based on a model that tracks the spread of biological viruses. He then introduced parameters to represent the way the antivirus software responds to this spread. He found that even if a signature is available from the moment a virus is released, it cannot stop the virus spreading if it propagates fast enough. Should we be worried? Yes.