The Cure is Worse than the Disease

Nobody wants anti-virus software. It is an unfortunate necessary evil for Windows users. To that end, anti-virus software should be as transparent to the user as possible. It should simply do its job with a minimum of interruptions to the user and have as little impact to the computer’s performance as possible. It should NEVER cause problems – because that is exactly what anti-virus software is trying to prevent!

Introducing problems is the ultimate failure of anti-virus software but unfortunately it happens all too often. I’m not surprised. The very nature of anti-virus software is to place itself deep in the guts of the operating system and monitor every bit of data passing through it. Additionally, besides dealing with extraordinarily complex software, anti-virus developers are in a race to stay ahead of malware authors. Speed kills, especially when dealing with complex systems, and anti-virus programmers are moving at breakneck speed.

The recent, well-publicized, colossal blunder on the part of McAfee that rendered many users’ computers inoperable is a testament to this fact. It is entirely feasible that for many, McAfee’s software caused more pain and suffering than any virus or spyware would have! It is also a testament that the malware issue on Windows operating systems continues to escalate. As mentioned before, the desire to stop dealing with malware is one of the top reasons users are switching away from Windows. Situations like this only shine a much brighter light on the already glaring problem.

That elephant in the room continues to get larger. Pretty soon it may crowd everyone out.

Anti-Virus: EPIC FAIL

A few of years ago, by using a good anti-virus software, keeping it up to date, and avoiding “risky” behaviors online, I could confidently state to my clients that they would likely be virus-free. But in the last couple of years, I have perceived an increase in the number of malware infections. It has not mattered what brand of anti-malware software was being used. It seems none are completely effective all of the time. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it just seemed like anti-malware software just wasn’t what it used to be.

Then I read this article, “Encryption and Anti-Virus are Failing,” and my suspicions were confirmed. A panel of experts at a security conference recently stated that current successful detection rates for popular anti-virus softwares are only between 70 and 90 percent. I remember when a detection rate below the high 90’s percentile was considered low! To me, detection rates like these are completely unacceptable. No wonder I’m seeing so many more malware cases. If anti-malware software leaves a 10 – 30% chance of letting an infection through, that’s a huge window of opportunity!

I’ve written before that the “elephant in the room” for Windows is its vulnerability to viruses and other malicious software. As much as Microsoft touts improved security in Windows 7, studies have shown that Windows 7 is just as susceptible to viruses as previous versions of Windows. If anti-virus software is only 70% effective, can you really call Windows secure at all? I’ve talked with a few people about this topic, stating that if this virus situation does not improve for Windows, at some point in the near future there will be a critical mass of users leaving Windows for operating systems that do not have a virus epidemic. News like this makes me think that this mass exodus may come a lot sooner than I first thought.

One More and We’ve Got Steak Sauce

I was checking my e-mail this morning and saw I had a message from one of my friends on Facebook. As usual, I click on the link within the e-mail to take me directly to that message on Facebook’s site. However, this time my web browser didn’t open up to Facebook. It took me to some strange site with a numeric address. After a few seconds I realized I had been the victim of a malware attack. Lucky for me, I use a Mac so the attack was useless on my computer. I noticed that a Windows EXE file had been downloaded, so out of curiosity, I scanned the file using ClamAV for Mac and it identified it as the Koobface worm. A little research on Google found that a new variety of the Koobface worm had just started making the rounds the day before. One article stated that this was the 56th variant of the Koobface worm. An astute commenter noted that one more and we’d have 57 varieties, just like Heinz. Heinz 57, of course, is their famous steak sauce.

More importantly, this latest example of a Windows vulnerability highlights just how risky it is to use a Windows-based computer in today’s world. If my computer were running Windows, I could have easily gotten infected this morning. It would have depended on whether or not my anti-virus software was completely up-to-date and/or if other security measures in place were able to stop this worm. Apparently, enough users out there aren’t well protected enough for this worm to be spreading like it is. Those that consider themselves technical “elite” will chide me for falling for this e-mail, and I probably should have noticed that the message was a little suspiscious. But honestly, why should I have to ensure that my computer has constantly updated multiple layers of security and always be viligant that the next e-mail message I open may hold impending doom? I shouldn’t – and long ago I made the conscious decision to not put up with it.

Which brings us to the crux of this article. Increasingly, it seems more and more people are making the decision to not put up with it anymore and switching to the Mac (including, today, that poor Facebook friend who sent me the worm). After the unmitigated disaster that Windows Vista has been for Microsoft, the company has quickly moved to bring out the next version of their operating system as soon as possible. They’ve also spent a lot of money on advertising trying to distance themselves from the “Vista” name and simultaneously undo the momentum that Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign has generated for Macintosh sales.

This is curious, given that Microsoft still holds approximately 90% marketshare vs. Apple’s approximate 10%. True, Apple’s share is currently about double of their previous historical best, but the desparate nature of Microsoft’s ad campaigns seems out of place here. It’s as if they know something we don’t know and have a reason to be scared. Perhaps Microsoft feels their future hangs in the balance with the release of Windows 7. Regardless of what they really think, they are doing a great job of developing the perception that they are betting the farm on Windows 7. And as the old saying goes, perception is reality.

The problem is that as much as Microsoft tries hard to distance itself from Vista, every time a new virus or malware hits the news, it’s yet another reminder that Windows is not secure. And similarly to many political races, it could be this issue and this issue alone that determines the final outcome. Microsoft claims they are shooting for a Windows 7 release by the end of this year. So until then, we shall see …

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