Bit9 wants to bin 'broken' antivirus, install whitelisting tech

A question of trust

Infosec 2012 Bit9 is using the Infosec show as a launchpad for its move into Europe as part of its wider ambitions to displace traditional antivirus technologies from corporate desktops and data centres.

The firm is marketing its brand of trust-based application control and whitelisting as a better way of tackling the growing malware menace posed by targeted attacks on security suites from the likes of Symantec and McAfee. However, if one traditional antivirus firm we spoke to is any guide then traditional players are not going to go down without a fight.

Bit9's Parity Suite uses the firm's Global Software Registry – a repository of five billion records of software – and "qualified" trust in updated applications from the likes of Adobe and Microsoft, to restrict the types of software allowed to run on Windows PCs and servers. Bit9's so-called "Advanced Threat Protection" platform also allows IT staff to set policies to block illegal and unauthorised software. Other components in its portfolio offer forensics capabilities.

The firm has set up operations in central London and in Munich in Germany to kickstart a channel programme it hopes will allow it to triple its sales in EMEA year-on-year. The firm already supplies its technology to customers ranging from various NHS trusts to Middle East Airlines.

Bit9’s chief executive Patrick Morley argues that the traditional antivirus model is broken and that businesses can benefit from moving to a trust-based model – enabled by Bit9's technology, of course – which he compared to the Apple App store. Bit9's Parity Suite is based on intelligent whitelisting and trust in the Microsoft update process, for example, rather than the detection of "something bad" from an analysis of the behaviour of software on PCs.

Whitelisting technology traditionally had a problem with false positives, falsely stopping legitimate business-critical applications from running. Morley conceded false positives with whitelisting technology were "bad in the early days" but said that by incorporating a "broad trust policy" for installers, intelligent whitelisting and cloud-based software reputation services, Bit9's technology had long since overcome these types of teething problems. He added that although Bit's technology offers a recording device on host end-points, it would be also be inaccurate to classify it as host-based intrusion prevention.

Bit9 is one of a number of firms talking up the benefits of smart application whitelisting at Infosec. Avecto and Faronics are also discussing the approach.

Morley said that although Bit9's technology can be run on top of an antivirus, the aim is to eventually displace it. He added that this displacement has already happened on retail tills and data centres, where the software can be used to protect file servers and domain controllers (Active Directory servers) in the data centre.

"Antivirus doesn't work and it's only the addition of anti-spam, firewall, data loss prevention and other technologies that have kept customers buying it," Morley told El Reg. "The model is broken and has been for a long time. It's only in the last two years that people have realised this," he added.

Morley justified buzzword-friendly claims that Bit9's technology supplied superior protection against Advanced Persistent Threats (industry slang for targeted malware driven industrial-espionage attacks) by saying that its software blocked the malware that featured in the infamous RSA attack last year dead in its tracks. This assault featured an Excel spreadsheet containing a Flash file that Bit9's software automatically deemed untrustworthy, Morley explained.

Eddy Willems, a security evangelist at anti-virus firm G Data, argued that whitelisting technologies are not without their shortcomings either, and ought to exist as a component of anti-malware suites, and not the replacement that Morley would like to see.

Willems, who as a consultant has installed whitelisting software, described it as "hard to tune and not easy to install".

He also listed other problems such as "legitimate samples which turn into malware examples afterwards" and a failure to combat in-memory malware or certain strains of rootkit as other shortcomings of the technology.

"It's a prevention method with no real removal capabilities, which is needed for several [strains of] malware," Willems said, adding: "It's part of the AV solution and not a solution on its own, we use it to prevent false positives so that it doesn’t remove important system files." ®

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