The future of anti-virus protection

Signature based scanning can no longer cope with the complexity of malware.

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Signature based scanning has been the mainstay of the anti-virus industry for more than a decade, but its time is up, according to a number of suppliers.

The old method was simple. Step 1: Identify a computer virus specimen. Step 2: Create a "signature" to detect and eradicate the virus, and push the signature file out to a computer. Step 3: Repeat steps 1 and 2 again and again for new viruses and their variants.

But the rapidly multiplying malware epidemic means this approach is "static, old school," according to Jerry Egan, director of product management at Symantec ’s security technology and response division. With 12,000 new malware specimens each day to detect and eradicate, "we think that technique is reaching the end of its useful life," Egan says.

Another complication is that malware is now so artfully designed, "it spreads to 20 or 30 machines before it mutates," Egan points out. That means "your neighbor has one variant and you have another. The effectiveness of each signature has gone down."

While Symantec isn't quite ready to jettison signature-based detection, the coming year is going to see a shift toward other anti-malware techniques, including behaviour-based protection, heuristics such as examining good and bad file characteristics, reputational analysis, and even whitelisting and blacklisting to allow or disallow code to run, says Egan.

"The shift will be to a hybrid model that employs these," Egan says about Symantec's product development going forward.

The view about signature-based detection is not so different at Trend Micro and Kaspersky .

"Our experience is that there has been a 700% increase this year over last year alone in malware," says Peter Beardmore, senior product marketing manager at Kaspersky Lab. "This is absolutely challenging the traditional approach to signatures."

Kaspersky sees its detection model shifting, too. "Rather than the pattern of code, there's a pattern of calls made in that code," says Beardmore. "It might be calling the printer or registry," so the malware would be identified through more behavior-based methods.

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