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Do We Have a Duty to Run Anti-Virus Software?

If you have children under the age of 11, you are probably already familiar with the continual trips to inoculation clinics for things like Polio, Tetanus, Hepatitis, Measles, Mumps and so on. Whilst not all vaccines are compulsory by law, there is a strong suggestion, that unless your child has a known reaction, there should be inoculated. Whilst there might be a small chance of a side effect, the general goal is to overcome the small risk to the individual and focus on the benefit to society as a whole, if a particular disease can either eradicated in its entirety, or managed to such an extend that it no longer becomes mainstream.

The same approach can really be said around the practice of anti-virus and anti-malware for both the individual and corporate landscape. There's a process of virus identification, then a preventative approach governed by anti-virus and anti-malware software distributed on all exposed devices. The end result is hopefully one where the virus has limited effect. Like in the real world, that in turn will cause the virus to 'mutate' or be developed further by an attacker so that it can become effective. Many corporate infrastructures, will operate anti-virus software at the server and desktop level. This will include automated software roll out, remote patch updates pulled directly from the anti-virus vendor and then pushed out to the end points within minutes of release. In addition many operational event and alerting mechanisms, are likely to be in place to identify any machines that have yet to receive an update and therefore could be vulnerable to attack.

At the corporate desktop level, much of that responsibility lies with the organisation and in turn the infrastructure administrators. This reliance however, starts to break down slightly when we introduce the Bring Your Own Device aspect to the landscape and also the introduction of more advanced smart phones and even home working.

The responsibility for the protection of these new devices is often left to the individual. The devices will be of different makes, models and operating systems making it impossible for a corporate policy to cover all angles and this also assumes that the organisations knows that a personal device is being used. So the protection aspect falls to the individual. Like child inoculation, not all personal devices will be protected by anti-virus or anti-malware software either due to choice, ignorance, neglect or simply as various different releases and versions provide inconsistent protection.

But does an individual have a duty to protect their machine and in turn prevent proliferation of a virus? I think in reality yes. If you use one of the many Linux flavours on your laptop for example, there is an argument that says, 'well Linux environments are less likely to be attacked by viruses so I don't need anti-virus software at all'. That argument holds true to an extent, if the only machines you ever communicate with are Linux. In reality that is not true. If you send a single email, the chances are the recipients will use a myriad of operating systems such as Windows XP, 7, Vista, Mac OSx and Ubuntu and so on. A virus which maybe harmless to one platform, could be hugely damaging to another and that can easily be spread by a single email.

As nearly all devices, smart phones, laptops and now home gadgets are connected to the internet, they are open to the proliferation of virus based software and even if not directly targeted, can become attack vector proxies for other victims.

The cynical view is that anti-virus software is a multi-billion dollar industry which effectively manages the marketing and impact of the viruses themselves in order to justify their own existence.  The flip side is that by being protected, simply accelerates the need to develop tougher to identify viruses, as they need to overcome the ever increasing protection levels.  I personally, am not that cynical.  I'd rather be protected today and have piece of mind, rather than assume what might happen tomorrow.  As software develops, as do counter measures and protection approaches and the most effective position to be in, is surely safe today, which helps the individual and in turn the rest of the connected internet.

(Simon Moffatt)


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