The last year has seen a lot of changes in the threat landscape, with the emergence of a number of new cyber espionage tools such as Gauss and Flame, as well as an increase in the volume of malware targeting mobile platforms such as Android. Recently, Alex Gostev, the chief malware expert at Kaspersky Lab, answered questions submitted by users on Facebook, discussing the evolution of antimalware solutions, the threats to mobile devices and how governments around the world are handling the cybercrime explosion.
Hi Alex, I would like to ask about cyber spying. You know, we make a lot of overseas calls via Skype in business today. Is there a wiretapping risk with Skype calls?
Alex Gostev: If the computer of the Skype user is infected with a malicious program capable of recording voice traffic (or intercepting data from a microphone), then, naturally, any voice communication via Skype can be intercepted. This is not just a theoretical possibility; incidents like this have in fact taken place repeatedly, and have even involved software created by law enforcement agencies. For example, an incident of this kind took place in Germany last year.
Are governments around the world coping with cybercrimes or just studying it?
Alex Gostev: The main problem with fighting cybercrime today is its global character. Undoubtedly, many countries in the world have achieved notable success in combating this threat; however, the most serious crimes can only be investigated successfully if there is international cooperation. Unfortunately, this is an area where problems do exist: a number of countries, for one reason or another, are not involved in international initiatives to fight cybercrime.
How did you manage to become who you are? Where did you get all that knowledge?
Alex Gostev: That’s a tough one J It was back in 1994 when I came across my first computer viruses; I only joined Kaspersky Lab in 2002. So you could say I gained most of my knowledge about viruses on my own. Take my word for it: there is sufficient information available on the Internet both to learn to analyze malicious programs and to understand the current trends in cybercrime and threat evolution. So, I suggest you read as many sites and expert blogs as you can, and try to reproduce their findings on your own; try to understand how the experts came to the conclusions they write about. Kaspersky Lab has three expert blogs: Securelist, Threatpost and our new consumer blog.
Why is it that virus makers mostly target the Windows operating system?
They say that it’s cyber war out there. Has Kaspersky been attacked?
Alex Gostev: Just like any other company involved in information security, Kaspersky Lab is a frequent target for attacks. This is to be expected. And, of course, we use the most reliable technologies to protect us from such attacks.
I want to work for Kapersky’s GReAT team. What would be the best college to finish and courses to take?
Alex Gostev: A technical education is important. There’s no one college or set of courses that’s the best to become a security researcher, but a good knowledge of operating systems, programming languages and a willingness to work hard are essential.
How many threats are added to Kaspersky databases daily to provide effective protection to everyone? What’s the comparison to free antivirus solutions?
Alex Gostev: At the present time, we detect some 200,000 new malicious programs every day. Naturally, it takes serious resources – both human and technical – to collect and process such huge volumes of threats. Besides malicious files, there are also other types of threats including malicious sites, network attacks, exploits etc. that we also need to keep tabs on. All this requires an extensive financial outlay. Independent testing shows that we have an edge over freeware security tools.
With nations increasingly using harmful software on their enemies what do you think about this? What’s Kaspersky’s stance on this? Has Kaspersky been approached by governments? What do you foresee for the future of industrial/governmental cyber wafrare. What’s Kaspersky’s future in this?
Alex Gostev: That’s a difficult question that really merits a separate article. In a nutshell, our first, major priority is to protect our users. So we will protect them from all types of malicious programs regardless of who creates them. It is also our aim to communicate a simple message to the world’s governments: any malware can also be used against its creators; unintended targets can also become victims. Cybercrime must become subject to international law and must come under the regulations and monitoring of the global community.
Anything to protect us from our own government?
Alex Gostev: We protect against malicious programs without making any distinctions as to who created them.
I know that Windows phone is not considered a virus target, but for those of us who want more security for our phone and feel left out, why is it so hard to make virus protection for Windows Phones?
Alex Gostev: There are no problems whatsoever about creating antivirus protection for Windows Phone (at least, Kaspersky Lab does not have any problems doing it).
Why do people say Apple computers don’t get viruses when they actually get more than people think?
Alex Gostev: These are old stereotypes that were created primarily by Apple themselves. Apple have claimed for a long time that their computers are much better protected. Eventually, they admitted that malware does exist for Apple computers and even incorporated a primitive antivirus scanner into OS X. Microsoft, for instance, also had to spend a decade or so learning to take virus threats seriously. Apple is only taking its first steps along this road, but we think they are moving in the right direction, especially if you look at the protection system on the iPhone.
Alex, what’s the best way of preventing your computer being infected and locked and asked to pay a steep fee to unlock it?
Alex Gostev: In the overwhelming majority of cases involving extortion malware, or ransomware, the victim computer is infected via a web browser. This is usually down to vulnerabilities in Java, Adobe Flash or in the browsers themselves. All these vulnerabilities have long been known and patched by the vendors. So, your first step should be to install all the latest patches and updates for your software on a regular basis.
What are the main Android threats?
See point 3 (“The explosion of Android threats”) and item 10 (“Mobile malware”) in this security bulletin.
Why does Kaspersky often (maybe very often) recognize “good” software as malicious?
Alex Gostev: I have to disagree with you on this one. Kaspersky Lab’s products have one of the lowest false positive rates in the entire industry; independent test results back up this claim. We couldn’t possibly have received the “Product of the year” award unless we had demonstrated the fewest false positives in dedicated testing.
Which web browser do you prefer? Which one is more secure? Which one is the best solution for Kaspersky products?
Alex Gostev: At the current time, I prefer Google Chrome. Which browser is the safest? Well, the answer to that is changing all the time. The situation can change in an instant – the discovery of a 0-day vulnerability would immediately turn the safest browser into the most vulnerable one. Therefore, apart from keeping an eye on the browser vulnerability situation, it is also advisable to complement your browser with dedicated protection tools, such as a sandbox, whitelisting etc. All these things are implemented in Kaspersky Lab’s products.
What are the most ”fashionable” viruses today? What was the most unusual virus detected last year?
Alex Gostev: Depends what you mean by “fashionable”. If we’re talking about high-profile malware, it would primarily be a whole new generation of malware in the Middle East which includes Flame, Duqu, Gauss, miniFlame, Wiper. All these kept us fairly busy throughout the year, both in terms of searching for and analyzing the findings. The realm of cyber weapons, i.e. malware created at the state level to attack the citizens, companies and authorities of other countries, is probably the hottest and most interesting topic right now.
As for unusual malware, there were traits in every single program mentioned above that we thought (and still think) were unusual. For instance, one of the Gauss modules installs a modified proprietary font called Palida Narrow into the system. Why it does this remains a mystery. Another example is the propagation module incorporated into the Flame worm –it helps the worm spread via local area networks, and that is a whole other story. Its creators have not only successfully implemented an unprecedented MD5 cryptographic attack but have also created a “real” Microsoft certificate. This is way beyond a 0-day vulnerability – this is “god mode”. Nothing like this has occurred before.
Is being a virus analyst a difficult job?
Alex Gostev: It’s only difficult for the first few years. After that, once you’ve gained experience, it gets easier. I remember about six years ago we organized competitions in our Virus Lab to see who could analyze malware the fastest. The record was 43 seconds from a file arriving for analysis till a detection was added. On the other hand, virus analysis is only a small part of the job. You have to be well informed about all developments, including news from your competitors and news from the other side of the front line; you need to be aware of where it’s all going and what will happen tomorrow. I suppose, this is the most difficult part, and it’s getting more difficult every day.
What new types of malware does the near future have in store for us?
Alex Gostev: There are unlikely to be any new types of malware. All the generic types of malware behavior have long been identified and malware, including viruses, worms, Trojans and exploits, are evolving along those lines. Of course, dozens of subtypes exist within each category, such as Trojan cryptographers, banking Trojans, network worms etc. However, malware evolution takes place exclusively in terms of seizing new platforms or operating systems – mobile Trojans are a vivid example. From the point of view of technology, everything is the same, but with new platforms and new possibilities, such as the sending of SMS text messages. Therefore, we expect all the conventional types of threats to migrate in the near future from personal computers to the entire range of modern devices.
Alex, do you keep a diary for yourself? E.g. I came across such and such a malicious program today. I was able to treat it in such and such a way. Tried such and such a dish and liked it. The weather was nice, etc.
Alex Gostev: No, I simply don’t have time for that. Time and again I think that it might be worthwhile writing down how my research is going. I think it would make a pretty interesting book. On the other hand, many of the things we’re involved in and the things we’re aware of cannot be published (yet).
Which operating system do you use? Which do you think is the safest for desktops?
Alex Gostev: I am not a dedicated fan of any specific operating system; in fact, I have a very simple view on them: for every task, there exists a suitable operating system. I arrange my work accordingly. In a single day I can work under Windows, OS X and Linux, not to mention mobile platforms for phones and tablet PCs.
There are no secure desktop operating systems. Any operating system can only be called secure on a conditional basis until the next 0-day vulnerability emerges. When this happens, it instantly turns the safest operating system into the most vulnerable one. I’m talking here about a situation where the vulnerability is publicly disclosed. As for privately-known vulnerabilities, well they always exist for any given operating system.
How much of his work time does a senior virus analyst put into practical, hands-on work, such as reverse engineering, debugging and sandboxing?
Alex Gostev: It depends on the time of the year and the research project the team is working on at a specific time. Sometimes, I can spend 80% of the day on hands-on research of a specific piece of malware. That may last for, say, a week. Sometimes I don’t touch a single malware file for an entire day. If you look at the bigger picture, I’d say I spend no more than 20% of my time throughout the year on hands-on research. However, when I was a virus analyst processing the inbound malware traffic, it took up 100% of my time. Now, I have to do a lot of non-core activities, such as giving answers to your questions 🙂
What make of smartphone or telephone does Alexander use (which manufacturer, model)? Does he have a mobile security solution installed on it?
Alex Gostev: At the moment I have an iPhone 3. It is a corporate phone. I don’t have any antivirus on it, because: a) no antivirus solution exists for iPhones; b) it has not been jailbroken c) there are no viruses for non-jailbroken iPhones anyway.
How do I properly uninstall Kaspersky Lab’s products so no garbage is left in the system and registry?
Alex Gostev: The “proper” way is to use the standard uninstaller. Should anything go wrong and the result is not satisfactory, use the dedicated removal tool: http://support.kaspersky.com/faq/?qid=208279463
How can I get rid of my paranoia and obsession that there is a Trojan in the system, or a vulnerability is being exploited?
Alex Gostev: Why would you want to get rid of it? When it comes to IT security paranoia is actually a positive thing, as it makes you more careful about what you do and how you do it. It makes you try to figure out how the system works, promotes your self-development and broadens your outlook. In other words, it’s a good thing.
At work, I often have to compile all types of DLL files. Security software pretty often reports them as being potentially dangerous, even after I block heuristic analysis. What can I do other than adding exclusion rules into the work directory?
Alex Gostev: I can’t give recommendations unless I have a complete understanding of which files you use, which functions you use, what type of warnings your security software gives, what it specifically reports etc. If you are totally sure that your files are clean (beware though, there may be surprises, e.g. check out the history of the Induc virus), then go ahead and add them to the exclusion rules and contact your security provider’s support line and let them find out what the reasons are for the false positives.
How safe is it to use cloud-based storage? Do you know of any cases where the cloud has been infected?
Alex Gostev: Ah, this is a major topic. There was a recent newspaper publication about this in which I feature. Unfortunately, it’s only in Russian. For those of you who know Russian, check it out here: http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1771693
Can you please tell us about how Kaspersky’s Virus Encyclopedia documentation is created.
Alex Gostev: These days, 99% of the malware descriptions in Kaspersky’s Virus Encyclopedia have been created by a robot using standard templates and based on automatic analysis of files. Several thousand old descriptions also exist that were written by humans (yes, there used to be time when a new dedicated description could be created for each new virus). Several hundred of them were created specifically by me.
The management of one large company says that Kaspersky Lab writes viruses and creates zombie networks to infect computers in the Russian segment of the Internet, in order to sell more of their products and provide consulting services. Can you please comment on this. I can’t disclose the name of the company as I work for it.
Alex Gostev: I recommend you change your employer. If your management has such a mindset, you never know what they’ll come up with next.
Can you dispel the myth that working in IT security is the preserve of men. It would be great if you could also provide some supporting facts.
Alex Gostev: This is in fact not a myth, but the current reality. Men do indeed make up the majority of experts in this field. Having said that, there are women who work in IT security, and all of them demonstrate a greater professionalism than most men working in this area. In my private view, a woman working in IT security has to demonstrate a very high level of professionalism. All the women I know who work in this sphere, are very good specialists, but there are so few of them. Furthermore, they are so well known in their profession (especially in Russia) that no proof is really necessary.
What can you say about the antivirus that is incorporated in Windows 8? This takes away quite a bit business from the security software manufacturers. How would you comment on this?
Alex Gostev: It’s been quite a while since it was incorporated, and quite a while since it’s been “taking away business”. The thing is, it never did in fact take any business. The simple fact is that in order to develop successful security solutions, a company needs to specialize in developing those solutions. That must be their core business. That cannot be said of Microsoft.
My friends say Kaspersky Anti-Virus is a resource-hungry monster, and recommend that I use free antivirus solutions (I won’t advertise them here). Their argument is: free antivirus is no worse, in fact they are better in many respects. Is this correct?
Alex Gostev: No, and I can’t be bothered disproving it here. I personally would never use a free antivirus, even if I didn’t work for Kaspersky Lab. I know how this type of software works, who works on these programs and how.
Which antivirus manufacturers do you feel most envious of? Would you agree to work for them if they paid you enough?
Alex Gostev: Well, I’m not envious of anyone. There are companies that I have respect for – these are primarily the companies that can make good use of the resources they have, both human and technical, where the work of the specialists makes me say: “How the hell did they find this before us or do a better job of analyzing than us!” This really stimulates competition, and, as a consequence, our level of expertise improves as well.
In recent times, I’ve only seen this sort of interesting, motivating competition between us and Symantec. To be more precise, between Kaspersky’s team of experts (GReAT) and their STAR team. That said, we cooperate very closely with them on a number of research topics, and have good personal relationships with them.
As for working for a different antivirus company – well, I think I’ve become too much of a Kaspersky man. I’d be more likely to change the IT security sphere for a different, but related area. Or set up my own business.
How do you attract clever students and specialists to your company? Is there a chance they will later be recruited by secret services (foreign or Russian)? Or is this the first time you’ve heard about this?
Alex Gostev: How we attract new employees is a business secret J As for being recruited by secret services, I didn’t in fact understand that one. Secret services can recruit anyone – taxi drivers, bakers, managers (ourselves not excluded), so what? Kaspersky Lab has its own security service, and its does a great job. This question is within their competence.
When I was reverse engineering one of your products, namely Kaspersky CRYSTAL v220.127.116.118, I discovered the following comment:
//I am not responsible for this code
//I was forced to write it against my will
This is an Easter egg, right?
Alex Gostev: When programs get complied, the comments existing in the source code do not enter the final code – every programmer knows this. So you could not have obtained that by reverse engineering.
Read about the prehistory of that case: http://stackoverflow.com/a/216744
Is a hardware firewall in the router enough? Or maybe, besides that, it’s good to have a software firewall?
Alex Gostev: The firewalls in modern routers are pretty limited in terms of their functionality, and perform primitive filtering at the level of port addresses. Naturally, this solution is not adequate for complete security.
I want to ask about security in Linux. How does Kaspersky Lab approach this system from a security aspect? Do you study the number and geography of threats for Linux. Do such threats evolve in any way, and are they really dangerous? Linux users are convinced that they are secure, and malware does not pose any threat to them. You can read tons of comments like “I’ve got Linux, I’m secure”. What do you think about this?
Alex Gostev: There are far fewer attacks against Linux than Windows or even OS X, for that matter. The user base isn’t as large as Windows and so the target isn’t as attractive for attackers. There are vulnerabilities and other threats for Linux systems and have been since the beginning, but malware isn’t a major issue on Linux.
Recently, I read that Android is the most unsafe mobile operating system. Do you agree? Which mobile OS is, in your opinion, the most secure?
Alex Gostev: Yes, I agree that Android is the most vulnerable mobile platform. The safest is iOS.
Stuxnet, Duqu, Flame and the latest Gauss have infected millions of computers, spying on their activities without the user realizing it. How is it possible that, despite the improvements antivirus products constantly make in detecting and blocking malware based on the behavior of executable files, Stuxnet and co. have not been noticed and detected? For example the spread via USB flash drive by autorun.inf using the CVE-2010-2568 vulnerability in the *.LNK file, or sending data to a remote server – how is this possible? What does Kaspersky Lab plan to do to fight cyber-espionage? What will be the next Gauss?
Alex Gostev: First of all, the Duqu, Flame and Gauss incidents do not involve millions of computers – at most they affected thousands. In fact, Duqu and miniFlame only affected a few dozen computers. Second, we’re talking about programs that cost millions and that had input from dozens of people. These are not typical cyber threats – they are cutting-edge, complex threats. Obviously, learning how to reliably detect and block them takes time. It should be noted here that KL was the first company to detect and carry out in-depth analysis of them. We are the best in the world at detecting these sorts of threats – and that’s a fact. We’ll use the knowledge we’ve gained to seek out other similar threats.
Why does Kaspersky slow my PC down so much?
Alex Gostev: A good level of protection will always require some use of computer resources. There are software products out there that call themselves antivirus solutions and which operate faster than our product, but the level of protection they provide is nowhere near that offered by Kaspersky Lab. We don’t see the point of lowering the level of protection, because just one missed virus out of millions detected can cause a user major problems. We are constantly working on new technologies that will allow us to depart from older protection methods, such as the multi-level scanning of files. These technologies will use less computer resources, but also ensure the highest level of protection is maintained.
What is the role of Cloud Protection in Kaspersky’s 2012 product versions? What are the pros besides the basic protection?
Alex Gostev: The reaction time of the cloud to new threats is generally several times greater than that offered by traditional signature databases. Cloud protection is intended primarily to prevent the user being affected by the very latest threats.
Your antivirus is useful against viruses and Trojans whose signatures are already known and the code is already recognized as malicious. What about “hand made” viruses with hidden code?
Alex Gostev: Signature-based analysis is a tried-and-tested method of detecting threats, but on its own against today’s threats it’s virtually useless. That’s why our product uses behavioral analyzers capable of determining whether a program is behaving itself or not.
When installing Kaspersky Anti-Virus together with another antivirus solution, why does Kaspersky tell you to remove them, but they don’t say anything about Kaspersky? I found this rather strange.
Alex Gostev: To ensure a high level of protection and avoid any conflict with other programs, we recommend users uninstall all other antivirus products before installing our product. It is technically possible to have two or three antivirus solutions on one machine, but it will mean the computer is overloaded and will slow it down considerably.
Why don’t you contact rutracker.org and tell them to stop distributing your products?
Alex Gostev: Let them carry on – we don’t mind J
Is Kaspersky Mobile Security good enough to protect my Android phone? Also, why are there different prices for KMS on Google Play and on kaspersky.com sites?
Alex Gostev: Kaspersky Mobile Security is one of the best mobile AVs (and this is not just our opinion, PPCSL, AV-Test and other independent test agencies say the same). So, in answer to your first question, yes, it is. There are some differences between the update speeds on the GPlay and Kaspersky Lab websites and the tech support terms are also different (on GPlay you can get only limited support via email).
When will a control plug-in for browsers be implemented in KAV or KIS?
Alex Gostev: Is it really necessary? It’s much easier and more effective to open the product and make all the necessary changes there. If you’re talking about tuning the product settings, it is more effective to make all the necessary changes there. Also, we need to isolate our UI settings from malware and other processes to ensure the protection level.
Today we download loads of free apps to our gadgets. Can the attacker take advantage and disguise them as Trojans to compromise our systems and break into other remote targets?
Alex Gostev: There are indeed lots of Android Trojans spreading not only in the guise of legitimate apps but also embedded by malicious users in popular programs. To do this they create their own modifications of the original app package where the Trojan module is added.
Here are some recent examples of this:
and it’s also worth reading our report on mobile malware in 2012.