What Is Anti-virus Worth?

Microsoft recently announced plans to discontinue OneCare, the company’s consumer-oriented, subscription-based anti-malware product. Instead, Microsoft will offer a free-of-charge anti-malware offering called Morro.danger.jpg

I know that conventional wisdom, certain government and industry regulations, and Windows’ “Danger, Will Robinson” Security Center alert shield all disagree with me, but I’m not convinced that anti-virus products (as we know them) are even worth what Microsoft plans to charge for Morro.

That’s because no matter how much you pay (or don’t pay) in anti-virus licensing fees, these products carry considerable costs.

First, as anyone who’s regularly used anti-virus software has experienced, the scanning, updating and heuristics functions of these products add up to significant system overhead. Who among us has never stepped out to grab a cup of coffee or chat idly by the water cooler while Windows cranks through some ill-timed system scan?

Second, anti-virus products add considerable update and maintenance overhead to the systems on which they’re used. The blacklisting approach employed by traditional anti-virus, which checks files against constantly changing (and yet totally comprehensive) signature databases, requires frequent updates to operate.

What’s more, the anti-virus software itself must be updated, lest it become a vector for attack itself. I know of one company in particular at which unpatched anti-virus software was subverted in just this way.

And while there are freely available anti-virus products out there, a huge amount of licensing dollars are spent each year on these products, and management of these licenses by administrators with plenty of other CALs and seats and entitlements to wrangle doesn’t come for free, either.

Finally, the costliest characteristics of traditional anti-virus products—which purport to follow helpfully behind users cleaning up any messes that occur along the way—is a false sense of security and the poor administrative practices they enable.

Anti-virus products are an integral part of the admin-rights-by-default assumptions around which the Windows ecosystem has long been organized. The fact is that as long as users are willing and able to run software that they have no reason to trust, we’ll continue to have malware problems.

The solution to the malware problem is tighter lockdown, beginning with a clearer division between user and administrator roles than what we’re currently accustomed to. Microsoft has begun to promote this division with User Account Control in Vista. However, UAC must be paired with whitelisting policies that prevent regular users from running arbitrary, untrusted applications.

Rather than persist in the Sysiphisian struggle to spot and quarantine bad applications, user organizations must take control of the applications they allow onto their end points, and security vendors must build out the products and services that facilitate this control.

If you think I’m undervaluing anti-virus, I’d love to hear you tell me why.