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Vulnerabilities / Threats

11/5/2009
11:53 AM
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Is Antivirus Software Dead?

Always-on Internet connectivity is keeping malware concerns alive and well. We examine whether antivirus software is up to the task, or whether it's a security solution of the past.

Are we headed towards a future where the idea of an antivirus program, or security software in general, is simply not part of the picture? We might well be, but not for a good long time yet.

In the last few years, consumer computing has come under attack like never before, and the attacks are only growing more clever and more concentrated. In response, there need to be changes to the platforms on which we do most of our computing, and new approaches to securing the platforms we already use.

Antivirus isn't going away. It's just changing its shape to meet the times. Or rather, it had better change, because the other options are few and far between.

The History Of PC (In)security

For a long time, security as we know today simply didn't exist in the PC world. Antivirus software was created because the software we used (DOS and Windows, and their attendant programs) was never designed to ward off attacks. They were single-user environments with little or no network connectivity, so anything that went wrong was typically the user's fault.

The few really severe pieces of malware that circulated during this time were things like Robert Morris's Internet worm of November 1988 -- a program that routed itself through Unix machines by exploiting buffer overflow conditions in that OS. It worked the same way as its descendants: It exploited the always-on nature of networks and flaws in the Unix machines through which it propagated.

Once always-on connectivity and downloaded, rather than boxed software started becoming the norm, malware became commonplace, and the native insecurity of consumer computing became all too easy to see. Antivirus programs were retooled into generic system-protection suites, watchdogs that guarded everything from network connection to on-disk activity.

The problem was that such programs, by and large, were horribly obtrusive and a drain on system resources to boot. A PC might be safer, but it hardly mattered if the machine ran at what felt like half speed. Even worse was the false sense of security that such programs could create. It became easy to assume nothing could go wrong, to behave dangerously, and to consequently be hit by an attack that circumvented the whole defense system. (See "Zero-day attacks", below.)

Now the picture has started to change for the better, thanks both to smarter operating system and program design. But there are serious doubts as to whether extant operating systems can be fixed to accommodate the kind of all-encompassing security that's best suited to fighting back against the way malware works today.

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