Reports of death of email viruses greatly exaggerated?

AV firms attack MoD technology

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has come under fire over the capabilities of a product designed to protect business from the effects of email viruses, such as the Love Bug and Anna Kournikova worm.

Anti-virus vendors have said that software developed by the MoD's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) is neither innovative nor what the market needs. Dera has hit back by suggesting antivirus software on its own isn't enough to protect people from malicious code.

As previously reported, Dera unveiled a product called ::Mail this week which works on the principle of displaying a pop-up box when a user sends an email, confirmed whether they intended to send it or not. The software is designed as an add-on to antivirus software.

The idea of ::Mail is that it will both highlight the activation of covert email virus from infected PCs and effectively block propagation of viruses by methods such as Visual Basic scripts embedded in harmless looking email attachments, a technique used by the Love Bug.

Promising as this sounds the idea has been criticised on two grounds by antivirus firms: that the idea has been tried before and has been seen as a nuisance by end users and that such techniques would not stop the latest batch of email viruses.

MessageLabs, a managed service provider that scans its customers email for viruses, said that the techniques used by ::Mail would be effective against the not stop the second most common virus this month, W32/Magistr-mm. This is because the virus comes bundled with its own SMTP client.

Eric Chien, chief researcher at Symantec's antivirus research centre, said it might help block the spread of viruses in some organisations but is not a novel approach.

Putting users in control of deciding whether or not it is safe to send a message is likely to lead to more help desk calls in many organisations, he argued.

"Dera's technology sounds like a classic behaviour blocker, it's all a bit draconian and I don't believe the average customer would adopt it," said Chien.

In fairness to Dera, which enjoys a reputation for quality cutting-edge research, it has to be said that ::Mail is far more sophisticated than early reports suggested and in its professional version includes content control and techniques to prevent email spoofing.

Simon Wiseman, an information security specialist at Dera, hit back at the criticism by antivirus software vendors by saying their products, though widely used, failed to prevent the expense and inconvenience caused by viruses like the Love Bug.

Organisations often turn off all the checks their anti-virus scanner can perform in order to speed up operations, said Wiseman, who said that greater defence in depth against malicious code was needed in order to mitigate risks.

Symantec's Chien agreed that misconfiguration of antivirus scanners was an issue and that vendors needed to educate users and ship products with sensible default settings.

He added that there's no good reason for Visual Basic scripting to hook into Outlook and that firms should consider applying Microsoft's Outlook security patch, which is available here. ®

External Links

Technical details of Dera's ::Mail (no pricing or availability on this product yet)

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