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6/26/2007
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Pain in the Bot

There's no sure-fire way yet to de-zombify bots

From a technology standpoint, bots are pretty neat. These elusive applications can wiggle into a vulnerable computer, communicate secretly with its control center, download active code snippets for a specific attack, and evade the latest in layered security mechanisms. Unfortunately, the instructions are usually to blast out spam, launch a DOS attack, or steal secrets from resources the bot has access to. The business plan for bots is also a winner: Only a low percentage of bots has to deliver for the attack to be successful, the distribution costs are negligible, and the risk of prosecution of the people behind the attack is close to zero.

One of the perplexing problems with bots is figuring out how to remove them and who has incentive to solve the removal problem. It is pretty clear that endpoint security products have been ineffective, perhaps because users don't have them deployed and configured properly. But it doesn’t matter, because security is still not doing the job. Personal firewall features are not catching command and control communications. Signature checking is faked out by the polymorphic nature of code downloads. Attacks are seldom thwarted. Nobody seems able to eradicate bots from a machine and to keep them from coming back.

But two vendors are coming out with new anti-bot tools. Symantec Corp. (Nasdaq: SYMC) is beta-testing its anti-bot endpoint software solution, Symantec Anti-bot (with Sana Security Inc. contributing technology). The software notices when a bot changes its executable as a prelude to an attack. Anti-bot acts to restore the executable to a clean state before any attack can be launched. This ability to repair an infected machine is pretty interesting. Still, I'm not sure that the average consumer is going to buy an additional product to relieve the pain of bots when he is more worried about identity theft and malware forcing him to rebuild his computer. Let’s hope that Symantec comes to its senses and folds anti-bot protection into its Norton Endpoint Protection package for consumers.

Mi5 Networks Inc. , meanwhile, believes that enterprises will fight bots to reduce the risk of excessive cleanup costs resulting from infected networks and endpoints. Mi5 is now shipping Webgate, an appliance that seeks out the command and control communications lifeline that active bots require. Mi5 looks at all protocols on the wire to identify scanning and “phone home” activity from bot-infected machines. When found, the machine can either be automatically cleaned with a software agent, or IT folks can roll up their sleeves and manually eliminate the bot. Sometimes bots are only in contact every couple of months, but enterprises still should be encouraged to tackle bots to protect confidential data and to keep the business infrastructure flowing smoothly. (See Mi5's Not-So-Secret Weapon.)

In many ways, bots are virtual machines that are designed to launch attack applications in a protected environment. From a security standpoint, bots are like most malware in that they modify the PC configuration, use the network in inappropriate ways, and propagate to other vulnerable machines. Service providers are not going to help solve the problem, and some sort of anti-spam service approaches doesn't seem to be on the horizon. That means the only alternatives are to bolster endpoint security software for consumers, and add more intelligence to the network for enterprises. Right now, the bots are clearly winning.

— Eric Ogren is the principal analyst and founder of the Ogren Group, a firm specializing in consulting services for security vendors. Ogren's background includes more than 15 years of enterprise security experience with both the Yankee Group and Enterprise Strategy Group. Ogren has also served in a variety of senior positions at vendors including Tizor, Okena, RSA Security, and Digital Equipment. Special to Dark Reading.

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