Home > Security > Learning from Sony: An External Perspective

Learning from Sony: An External Perspective

(From Virus Bulletin, Feb 2006).

‘What happens when the creators of malware collude with
the very companies we hire to protect us from that malware?’
Bruce Schneier, one of the godfathers of computer security,
was pretty blunt when he aired his views on the AVindustry’s
disappointing response to the Sony rootkit (for an overview
of the rootkit and its discovery see VB, December 2005,
p.11). His question was never answered, which is fine, but
his concerns were not addressed either, and that’s a problem.

The incident represents much more than a black eye on the
AV industry, which not only failed to manage Sony’s rootkit,
but failed intentionally. The AV industry is faced with a
choice. It has long been accused of being an unproductive
use of system resources with an insufficient security return
on investment. It can finally shed this reputation, or it can
wait for the rest of the security industry to finish what Sony
started. Is AV useful? The Sony incident is a distressingly
strong sign that it is not.

All things being equal, I’d rather have the AV industry on
our side. We take it for granted that there are customers for
private computer security services. It didn’t have to be this
way: someone had to convince users that they were
responsible for their own security. Because of the
pioneering work of the AV industry, effective cryptography
was non-negotiable, security research could be legitimate,
and a free market for security technologies could form.
Indeed, even the spread of broadband and WiFi would have
failed if users hadn’t been motivated to purchase firewalls to
protect their new high-speed networks. The AV industry
made sure the users knew they needed to protect
themselves, which is why it is such a great problem when
the AV industry refuses to protect them.


Let’s be honest; the AV industry is blessed. What other
software producers can depend on the operating system (for
home users) or corporate IT departments (for the office)
essentially demanding that their product runs on every
system? When was the last time you saw a machine banned
from a network for not running Photoshop?

What is it that customers think they’re purchasing when
they buy anti-virus software? Is it just safety? The safest
machine is the one that is turned off. In fact, users are
looking for something beyond mere safety. Users want
control – and they’re willing to pay for it.

We are in the business of putting force behind consent. Put
simply, why ask for something if you can just take it? And
let’s make no mistake, Sony took control of people’s systems.
Whatever consent people may have granted initially to give
Sony access to a system, it cannot be denied that Sony
provided no mechanism for users to revoke that consent.
I often invite people into my home. I expect them to leave at
some point, particularly if I ask them to. I certainly do not
expect them to hide in my closet and pretend that they have
gone. And if I call the police because the visitors won’t
leave, I don’t expect them to argue with me about precisely
what I agreed to when I first let them in.

Sony had a choice. DRM is unpopular software, as its
primary purpose is to override user intent. Sony knew that
some portion of users would want this stuff removed from
their systems. They had the option to accept the revoked
consent, and provide an uninstaller. Alternatively, they
could simply ignore the need for user consent, take control
of the system permanently, and simply prevent users
from knowing there was anything to uninstall, by deploying
a rootkit.

That the rootkit was exploitable by black hat hackers was
bad, but ancillary to the argument. When the way you deal
with users wanting to remove your code is by preventing
users from knowing your code is running, not only are you
operating without consent, but you know it, and everyone
can tell.


Do we really expect the anti-virus industry to square up
against companies when they are just trying to defend
their copyright? Yes, absolutely. It’s where the AV industry

We have just acknowledged the 20-year anniversary of
the first PC virus, and almost everyone has missed the
most interesting thing about it. Brain was not written by
some random hacker, nor was it the nefarious creation of
shadowy criminal groups. Brain was all too happy to
identify its source:

Welcome to the Dungeon (c) 1986 Basit * Amjad (pvt)
430791,443248,280530. Beware of this VIRUS….
Contact us for vaccination…

The first virus was written by an incorporated company.
And why? Brain is still in business, so we can ask them. The
following explanation can be found on the company’s
website (http://www.brain.net.pk/aboutus.htm):

‘What no American journal had the courage to admit at
that time was how badly the virus had hurt America’s
painfully cultivated image of the world’s leading copyright
protector. Almost overnight, it had shown Americans to be
the world’s biggest copyright violators. Every time the
virus found a new home in the USA, it signalled one more
copyright violation by an American.’

Malware in the pursuit of copy protection is nothing new;
the first PC virus was an unambiguous and unapologetic
attempt to protect copyrights, by any means necessary.
It has been 20 years. It is time to recognize the threat of
corporate malware. It is not as if corporate malware is a
concept with which anyone is unfamiliar. One of the
most glaring failures of the computer security industry in
recent years has been the failure to prevent the spread of
spyware. It took years for the anti-virus industry to start
responding to spyware. The first anti-spyware code was
released in 2000. One major vendor released nothing until
2003. Millions of systems were infected while nothing
was done.

Eventually, the AV industry adapted. I attended a wonderful
talk, not long before the Sony story broke, where I heard
about the extraordinary steps the anti-virus industry was
taking to deal with what can basically be summarized as
‘hackers with lawyers’. As awful as it is that we have to deal
with peer businesses, instead of kids and criminals, it
certainly seems that the industry has finally learned to
respond to these threats.


But there really was no response to the Sony situation. Sony
claimed a few AV companies as allies, in order to give its
actions the patina of legitimacy. That didn’t work. The idea
of Sony and AV companies in talks was received about as
well as if the AV companies had been negotiating with the
author of Slammer, agreeing on which exploit he was
allowed to hit next.

A few AV companies added code to their products to remove
the cloaking component of the rootkit, but as far as I know,
nobody actually removed the DRM components for which
users were so clearly trying to retract consent. Only banal
excuses, such as ‘we’re waiting for Sony to write an
emergency uninstaller’, were heard.

Do we wait for the authors of worms to release uninstallers
to clean up their mess? Even if they did release one, should
we trust people who have written malware in the past?
Given that Sony’s first uninstaller consisted of a patch to the
latest version, and given that Sony’s code already had a
history of unintended security side effects, it was not a
surprise to witness multiple useless uninstallers coming out
of Sony over the next six weeks. (And this was after Sony
had decided to behave and respond in an extraordinarily
responsible manner!)

There is one industry that knows how to write an emergency
uninstaller, one that’s safe, effective and that can be released
quickly. But the AV industry did nothing.
Some have claimed that it would actually have been illegal
to have interfered with the Sony DRM, due to the Digital
Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These claims have
some merit – the US’s DMCA does indeed take a rather dim
view of subverting copyright protection mechanisms.
Ignoring the fact that not all AV companies are American,
and that not all victims were American, this legal
interpretation opens up an astonishing attack vector.

Imagine a startup – we’ll call it MP3Solutions.
MP3Solutions would combine spyware with DRM. First,
they’d design some code that detected watermarks in MP3
audio. Then, they’d offer $10 per deployment to
independent third parties, ‘no questions asked’. The code
could be spread via worms, botnets, or drive-by web
installs, but since the payload was copy protection software,
the DMCA-fearing AV industry would just have to sit back
and fail to protect anyone.

It really is amazing what happens once a user’s consent to
operate is considered optional. If this is really how the AV
industry is interpreting the DMCA, that’s astonishing and
newsworthy. But the DMCA restrictions certainly would not
have prevented the AV industry from complaining, or even
asking for explicit permission to remove this particular
piece of malware. Such permission seemed likely to be
granted in this case: by the end of November, Sony was
taking aggressive steps to manage the situation responsibly,
providing free MP3s to affected customers and displaying a
banner ad to inform users of their situation. The only thing
Sony was having trouble with was an effective uninstaller –
certainly they could have used the assistance of the AV

Perhaps such a request was made, and permission was not
forthcoming. It’s possible. But another thing the DMCA
does not do, is ban the provision of a warning to customers
that the service they’ve purchased would be illegal in this
instance: ‘Software has been detected on your system whose
operation you may not consent to, but which we are legally
forbidden to remove. The vendor refuses to provide consent
for us to remove this software for you. Please contact the
following vendor address [link] to ask why.’

But instead, Sony got the benefit of the doubt.

We don’t pay the AV industry to give Sony the benefit of the
doubt. The AV industry cannot take money from users and
provide services to Sony. I call upon every anti-virus
company to state publicly that, the next time a media
company tries to take control of users’ PCs, and decides that
the continued consent of the computer owner isn’t
necessary, they will act.


The AV industry in general failed to handle the Sony
situation responsibly. I am confident that such a widespread
failure will not be repeated – which means that those in the
AV industry who do stand up and act will be well placed to
take business from those in the industry who do not. By all
accounts, the failure to respond to Sony was a business
decision. Sony is a massive organization, one that possibly
represents a significant opportunity. Why anger the giant?
You don’t have to stand up for users. But your customers
don’t need to pay you. I spent many years working through
security policies. Many demanded anti-virus software on
every system. Not one of them cared about the size of the
organisation that wanted the malicious code installed.
However big Sony is, the AV industry left even larger
customers out to dry. (Military sites were hit. Does the
military operate without anti-virus?) AV sales people should
expect to be asked a simple question: why should anyone
pay you to protect someone else?

I call upon every anti-virus vendor to state, solemnly and
verifiably, that what happened with Sony was an anomaly –
a misunderstanding based on an incomplete understanding
of what customers demanded. No AV company expected this
reaction. Certainly, Sony had no idea of the firestorm they
were walking into. Did they ask? What were they told?
Regardless, with this new data can come new policy.
I also call upon the AV industry to stop releasing bad data. I
do apologise for implying publicly that AV companies knew
precisely how many Sony-infected nodes were out there.
You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and thus I had
assumed that AV companies were measuring what they were
trying to manage. I know now that some of them just look at
how many tech support calls they get, and extrapolate.
That is awful. The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’. Expect
any further releases of numbers to have their methodology
questioned. As for my own data – those who are curious
about my own methodology for tracking the Sony rootkit
are welcome to look through the 85 gigabytes of
compressed DNS traffic that I used to build my estimates
(see http://deluvian.doxpara.com/). One researcher with a
high-speed net connection should not have better data on a
global scale malware attack than companies with customers
paying them to manage that malware. And yet, I have almost
a tenth of a terabyte, and they have tech support calls.
I invite the AV industry to do better.

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