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Mass mailing viruses could be consigned to the dustbin of history if only anti-virus vendors were quicker off the mark.

Findings presented by security experts at the recent Virus Bulletin Conference in Chicago show that reducing the ‘window of vulnerability’ between the release of a virus and the availability of fixes could make email virus outbreaks a rarity. The window of vulnerability is the delay between the appearance of a new email-borne virus or worm, and the release of signatures by traditional anti-virus software vendors.

Research presented by Gabor Szappanos from Virus Buster shows that when a new mass-mailing virus emerges, it usually takes a few hours to gather enough momentum to result in an outbreak. If anti-virus vendors were able to reduce the window of vulnerability to three hours or less, mass-mailing viruses would have little if any impact. A separate study (PDF) by Andreas Marx of AV-test.org showed that the average signature delay time has only been reduced from 12 to 10 hours during the past year. Taken together the studies demonstrating a gulf of between seven to nine hours between the first appearance of mass mailers and the availability of fixes.

The findings are further evidence that signature-based anti-virus technologies alone no longer provide adequate protection against viral outbreaks. Consumers and businesses alike can get infected with fast-spreading viruses even when they regularly update signature-based anti-virus detection tools. According to a report published by IDC in August 2004, proactive virus detection techniques are expected to be increasingly adopted by organisations to combat the more complex, fast-spreading threats of the future. A variety of approaches to plugging the gaps left open by conventional AV scanners are emerging.

Filter and block

Email filtering firms, such as MessageLabs and Avecho, argue viruses should be filtered out from email traffic on the net before they get anywhere near corporate boundaries. Host-based intrusion prevention firms argue the opposite. Firms like Cisco, Prevx and others argue that malicious code should be thwarted at the desktop using various types of behaviour-blocking technologies. Vendors such as Cisco, McAfee have sought to apply behaviour blocking techniques as a supplement to conventional AV scanner software. Thus far this has been a corporate play. Prevx Home became the first host-based intrusion prevention product to be offered as a free download last month, following a model adopted by GRISoft and Spybot in the AV and anti-spyware markets, respectively.

A third approach comes from security appliance vendors. Finjan this week announced plans to make a scaled down version of its behaviour blocking appliance available to small businesses from the start of next month. The 1Box Series uses "application-level behaviour blocking" to identify malicious behaviour of files coming into the network by email or web, and block them before they can do any harm. The PC-based appliance includes anti-virus, URL filtering and anti-spam engines in a single box. Finjan said the device is able to recognise malign patterns of behaviour and block previously unseen malware without relying on signature files. 1Box series prices start at $2,755 for the hardware, with software licences of $27 per user for 100 users. ®

Related stories

Virus writers outpace traditional AV
The trouble with anti-virus
Prevx releases free intrusion prevention software
Cisco, IBM and MS in network security love-in

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