How many viruses are created by anti-virus companies?

A commentary by Christian Mairoll, CEO of Emsisoft

Background

 As CEO of an Anti-virus company my friends and acquaintances often ask me “Who writes all these viruses?” and often hidden behind this question is the serious accusation of “You write them yourself, just to drum up business!”.

If only it were that simple… The reality, however, is very different. Apart from the fact that doing so would be morally reprehensible and also illegal, it is actually quite simple to prove that it’s technically impossible for antivirus companies to manufacture the sheer volume of viruses produced.

Cost/Benefit analysis

Today’s Viruses, Trojans and Bots are the result of an enormous amount of programming work. Intentionally and unintentionally released source code only allows a rough estimate of the original effort required, but one can easily assume that every new genus of malware is the result of at least 1-3 months of programming work. New variants that are further developments of old malware are of course easier to produce.

At Emsisoft, we add around 30,000 – 50,000 new malware signatures (fingerprints) to our detection database every day, i.e. roughly half a million each month. Historical developments indicate that the number of new threats doubles each year. Emsisoft Anti-Malware currently has 13 million signatures in its database. This also includes many signatures that detect variants of the same malware using generic detection, so the total number of signatures is less than the actual number of malware programs.

If I was the CEO of an evil anti-virus company I would first need a new employee to write a Virus in the first place. I would also need someone for further development and maintenance, to protect my investment by ensuring that the Virus will still run on future operating systems. Once development of the Virus is finally complete, it would then be released into the wild and entered into the detection database of our own Anti-virus software.

Great! In one month we have only managed to build one new Virus – one single Virus among 500,000 others this month.

By now, it should be clear to everyone that it simply makes no commercial sense for us to write the Viruses ourselves. The advantages obtained by the detection of one extra piece of malware against the sheer unbelievable volume released each month are simply too low. Even when the cost of hiring programmers in low-wage countries is very cheap, it is absolutely certain that no Anti-virus manufacturer could afford to do this. Even put together, all the Anti-virus manufacturers in the world wouldn’t be able to generate the current volume of new malware.

Well, who is writing all this new malware then ?


Alas, there are people who can earn much more money writing malware than the Anti-virus industry ever could by writing their own malware.

A decade ago these programs were mostly written by hackers wanting to test the realms of possibility, but today an enormous amount of criminal energy and hard-core commercial enterprise lies behind most malware. A centrally controlled network of several thousand hijacked PCs (a Botnet) can be used in variety of different ways. This massive amount of computing power can be hired as a package for a variety of devious purposes: For sending Spam and Phishing emails, for coordinated webserver overload attacks (DDos) in order to blackmail companies or as a proxy server network for hiding the traces of illegal activities. The largest detected Botnets such as Conficker, Rustock or Cutwail had over a million of these “Zombie” computers available.

Other malware authors attempt to convert their work directly into hard cash by encrypting important personal information and then demanding ransom money for decrypting the data (so-called ransomware). Some malware is directly targeted at specific companies or systems, for instance the sabotage attacks on the Iranian nuclear energy program using the Stuxnet malware in late 2010.

Anti-virus = Virus

Another reason for the rumor that anti-virus companies write the Viruses is the increase in the number of fake Anti-virus products (so-called Rogue Anti-virus software). The authors of this type of malware use names that are similar to well-known Anti-virus brands to trick users into installing software that only pretends to detect Viruses. Fake detections are then used to urge the customer to purchase a “Full version”.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are plenty of incentives for malware authors to write new malicious programs. All of these incentives share one thing in common: They offer far greater rewards than the Anti-virus companies could expect from writing their own Viruses. Quite apart from the fact that it would only take one public example of this type of activity to result in a legal, commercial and media disaster for an Anti-virus manufacturer.

There is also the argument that Anti-virus companies depend on the work of the malware authors. This may be true, but our intentions lie at the opposite end of the moral spectrum and we are always doing our best to make the Internet a safer place.

 

Have a nice (malware-free) day!

Christian Mairoll – CEO

www.emsisoft.com