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Vulnerabilities / Threats

11/5/2009
11:53 AM
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Is Antivirus Software Dead?

Always-on Internet connectivity is keeping malware concerns alive and well. We examine whether antivirus software is up to the task, or whether it's a security solution of the past.

Limiting Privileges

The most significant system-protection change that's been made as of late is the limiting of user and program privileges. A program should not, by default, be able to change any aspect of the system at will; it should only do what's required of it. If it wants to modify system settings, it can only do so after explicit admin authorization.

Linux, OS X, and the NT-based editions of Windows (NT, 2000, XP, and up) have this sort of privilege segregation. Up until recently, though, Windows made it too easy not to use this feature: most people simply logged in and ran as administrator because it was too much of a hassle not to. Too many programs were still written under the assumption they could change everything, and would break unless they didn't have admin privileges. But by the time Vista and User Account Control rolled around, things had changed: Windows programmers were now in the habit of writing apps that didn't need root privileges to run. The burden of making computing safer fell to both the platform and application providers.

Several things are immediately noticeable when you run as a non-admin by default. For one, this stops the majority of "invisible" attacks committed by malicious programs that run silently in the background. Two, it's much harder to unthinkingly make systemwide changes. And three, the majority of security problems that used to silently pile up under users' noses and then explode without warning don't. This isn't to say that it's not possible to trick users into running malicious programs at all, but that most of the common ways to do this have become harder.

I'll cite a personal experience as proof that this approach is hugely useful. I encouraged friends who used to run under the bad old security model (run as root) to do the right thing and run as non-admin. They were running Windows XP or Windows 2000, and in every single case, the number of malware infections and other security-related issues dropped off to just about nothing.

So does that mean UAC and similar technologies let you do without antivirus altogether? The short answer is "Yes, but not without some risk."

Zero-day Attacks

If operating systems were perfectly bug-free environments, then limiting user privileges might be a fairly bulletproof way to keep things secure. Unfortunately, bugs do exist, and the creators of malware have turned to exploiting newly revealed and as-yet-unpatched vulnerabilities -- the infamous "zero-day attacks" -- as their next big thing. Recent word about an OS X kernel flaw underscores this all the more: a bug like this could allow someone to write directly into kernel space, and completely bypass mechanisms like limited privileges.

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