When hackers broke in to the New York Times' network, evaded its antivirus software and began plundering its computer systems, it highlighted a rather uncomfortable truth: Antivirus software is not that good at keeping systems secure.
That means that any company that relies on an antivirus package to secure its endpoints is exposing itself to a huge security risk. "To some extent the problem is the fault of the security industry who have been selling these products," says Graham Cluley, a senior technical consultant at antivirus vendor Sophos.
Antivirus products don't have magic powers; you still have to worry about security. While antivirus software is good at spotting known malware by matching its digital signatures with a signature database, the type of sophisticated hackers that are believed to have masterminded the New York Times attack would likely write new exploit code that no antivirus product would have ever seen before.
And it appears -- though this is not certain -- that the New York Times was relying on the signature matching protection of Symantec's antivirus product to maintain the security of its systems. After the attack was publicized, Symantec said in a statement: "Turning on only the signature-based antivirus components of endpoint solutions alone are not enough in a world that is changing daily from attacks and threats. We encourage customers to be very aggressive in deploying solutions that offer a combined approach to security. Antivirus software alone is not enough."
Most antivirus products -- including Symantec's -- go beyond signature-based protection by offering generic protection against malware types that are similar to specimens that have been seen before, and by offering behavioral protection which detects when software demonstrates suspicious behavior such as changing certain registry settings or causing a buffer overflow.
But this more sophisticated antivirus protection is also not sufficient. Here's why: In a nutshell, whether or not a given antivirus product will detect a piece of malware is entirely predictable.
All a hacker has to do when designing a piece of malware is run it on a computer with that antivirus product to see if it will be detected. If it is, then the hacker can modify the code until the antivirus software no longer detects it.
So what should a company do to protect its endpoints? The answer, according to Paul Rubens, writing for eSecurity Planet, is to deploy several layers of security measures to reduce the risk of compromise. Some of these are included in security "suites" sold by antivirus software vendors in addition to their core antivirus products.
A determined group of skilled hackers sponsored by a foreign state such as China will likely be capable of penetrating any defenses that you put in place, given enough time and resources. But that doesn't mean there is no point in bothering with anything more than the most rudimentary signature-based antivirus protection. "By applying these layers of security, what we can do is reduce the risk that a system is compromised," Cluley says.
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