An article in The Wall Street Journal this week quoted executives from antivirus pioneer Symantec uttering words that would have been industry heresy a few years ago, declaring antivirus software “dead” and stating that the company is focusing on developing technologies that attack online threats from a different angle.
This hardly comes as news for anyone in the security industry who’s been paying attention over the past few years, but I’m writing about it because this is a great example of how the cybercrime underground responds to — and in some cases surpasses — innovations put in place by the good guys.
About 15 years ago, when the antivirus industry was quite young, there were far fewer competitors in the anti-malware space. Most antivirus firms at the time had a couple of guys in the lab whose job it was to dissect, poke and prod at the new crimeware specimens. After that, they’d typically write reports about the new threats, and then ship “detection signatures” that would ostensibly protect customers that hadn’t already been compromised by the new nasties.
This seemed to work for while, until the smart guys in the industry started noticing that the volume of malicious software being released on the Internet each year was growing at fairly steady clip. Many of the industry’s leaders decided that if they didn’t invest heavily in technologies and approaches that could help automate the detection and classification of new malware threats, that they were going to lose this digital arms race.
So that’s exactly what these firms did: They went on a buying spree and purchased companies and technologies left and right, all in a bid to build this quasi-artificial intelligence they called “heuristic detection.” And for a while after that, the threat from the daily glut of malware seemed to be coming under control.
But the bad guys didn’t exactly take this innovation laying down; rather, they responded with their own innovations. What they came up with is known as the “crypting” service, a service that has spawned an entire industry that I would argue is one of the most bustling and lucrative in the cybercrime underground today.
Put simply, a crypting service takes a bad guy’s piece of malware and scans it against all of the available antivirus tools on the market today — to see how many of them detect the code as malicious. The service then runs some custom encryption routines to obfuscate the malware so that it hardly resembles the piece of code that was detected as bad by most of the tools out there. And it repeats this scanning and crypting process in an iterative fashion until the malware is found to be completely undetectable by all of the antivirus tools on the market. Continue reading →