Open letter asks AV companies for openness on surveillance malware

Posted by   Virus Bulletin on   Oct 28, 2013

Old issue has become hot topic again following Snowden revelations.

A group of experts in privacy and digital rights has sent an open letter (pdf) to a number of anti-virus companies, asking them to be clear about their detection of government surveillance software both in the past and in future cases.

The experts, amongst which are organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International, and individuals such as Bruce Schneier and Claudio Guarnieri, ask four questions: whether each company has ever detected government surveillance software; whether it has been approached by a government to stop such software being detected; whether it has granted such a request; and how it would respond to such requests in the future.

The idea of 'good' malware - for various definitions of 'good' - is almost as old as malware itself. Anti-virus experts have historically taken a pretty extreme point of view when it comes to malware - with all of it considered bad, no matter who has written it, no matter for what purpose (even if it is part of a university course).

But the security landscape has changed. On the one hand, while anti-virus products are still seen by many to be all about signatures, they have moved far beyond that. Of course it would be possible for an anti-virus product not to add a signature for a certain file. However, that wouldn't necessarily mean that the malware would be able to perform its malicious tasks uninterrupted: others parts of a security suite may still stop it from doing that.

At the same time, we know that governments are actively deploying malware for surveillance or disruptive purposes: 'FinFisher', the 'Bundestrojaner' and 'Stuxnet' are just a few examples. The notion of 'good' malware has become very real - though of course, there will be many who won't agree with the authors' definition of 'good'.

I think it rather unlikely that governments are making active requests for non-detection: it would only help them a little, while also increasing the likeliness of not just the malware but also the source being discovered. Moreover, it is a sad reality that if you try hard enough, you can defeat almost all security software.

Still, the possibility can never be excluded and it is good that these questions are being asked - even if many companies have stated their position clearly in the past, and even though we all know that, if they had actually received such requests, they would likely be forbidden to disclose this.

Sure, the wording of the letter may be seen to imply that the authors believe non-detection requests have been made, and if the authors had done their homework better they would probably have referred to the companies' previous statements - and wouldn't have left some prominent names off the list of recipients.

However, it would be wrong to dismiss the letter on such technicalities. The issue is real - and though technically nothing may have changed since Edward Snowden revealed the scale of the US surveillance programmes, in the eyes of the general public, it has. That is what matters here.

Posted on 28 October 2013 by Martijn Grooten

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