A virus that spreads from PCs to mobile devices has become the focus of a power play between the anti-virus industry and the relatively young Mobile Anti-virus Research Association, which obtained the only sample of the program.
This week, the Mobile Anti-virus Research Association (MARA), a collection of professors, authors and security professionals, announced it had "characterised' the first program to spread from a PC to a mobile device, a virus dubbed Crossover. In a rare occurrence in computer-virus circles, MARA appears to be the only organisation to obtain a copy of the program - normally, such virus samples are sent by the creator to the major anti-virus firms and shared among virus experts.
The exclusive access to the virus, and MARA's insistence that companies join its membership before being given access to the code, has anti-virus companies up in arms.
"You have to go a long way back to find an analogous situation, where an anti-virus group finds a virus and sits on the sample," said Mikko Hyppönen, chief research officer for anti-virus firm F-Secure. "We didn't want to join their organisation just to get a sample."
When F-Secure and other companies requested a sample from MARA, the organisation sent back a legal agreement for membership. Among other rules, the document would have required that the company share its entire database of virus samples, Hyppönen said.
However, without the agreement, the Mobile Anti-virus Research Association would not know if a new member would abide by the rules, member and spokesperson said Cyrus Peikari, the author of five books on security and the CEO of security firm Airscanner.
"Malware trading, which is illegal in many countries, should be done with a written chain of custody. This is for the protection of all parties. Does it seem responsible for a legitimate company to send out viruses without some form of written agreement in place? I think some companies have let this slide for a number of years."
The debate over the virus sample has highlighted a rift between the more conservative of the anti-virus industry and a group of security researchers that do not adhere to the industry's stance against publishing virus code and associating with virus writers. Many security researchers believe that open disclosure of security vulnerabilities leads to better security. As those researchers begin to study viruses, worms and bot software, they argue that the same logic means the open discussion of threatening vectors for worms.
Already some security experts have moved toward the more open treatment of virus code. Last month, security researcher Kevin Finisterre admitted to creating the three versions of the OSX/InqTana worm and sending them to anti-virus companies as a way to highlight weaknesses in Apple's operating system. In January, security consultant David Aitel revived the topic of beneficial computer worms, which he called "nematodes," and showed off research on how to conduct vulnerability scans of a network using the distributed features of such programs.
"In the general security community, it seems that the concept of 'security through obscurity' has long been discredited," Peikari said. "However, a small number of anti-virus vendors are still strongly against re-publishing malware code in any form, even if it is already in the public domain - and readily accessible by anyone via free internet download."
Some security experts and anti-virus companies have started the application process to join MARA, according to a statement on the group's website. The group has also said it remains open to amending its contract, if antivirus companies propose reasonable terms.
However, other anti-virus companies have taken a staunch position against joining the organisation.
"We work with people on a trust basis, people who have been in the industry and are known to us," said Joe Telafici, director of operations for the anti-virus emergency response team (AVERT) at security firm McAfee. "We simply don't know any of these guys. Right now we have to say, 'Give (the virus) to people who are going to protect people from it.'"
Telafici and other members of the anti-virus industry interviewed voiced skepticism of the claims of the Mobile Anti-virus Research Association because of alleged past associations of several of its members with virus writers.
The distrust stems from a series of articles that Peikari and two other members wrote in September 2004 on the first PocketPC virus, known as CE.Dust, and dubbed WinCE.Duts.A by anti-virus firms. One section of the article had apparently been written by the virus's author, Ratter of the virus exchange group 29A, and the article included the complete source code for the virus.
"Overall, we don't really want to be involved with this organisation, because of their code of conduct and some of their ties with virus writers," F-Secure's Hyppönen said.
Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at rival anti-virus firm Sophos, also mentioned the articles as a reason for questioning the group's conduct. It's also strange that the group has the only copy of this virus, as most virus writers who create such code want to send it to every antivirus company to maximize the publicity, he said.
"If you thought you did something clever, you would send it to all the anti-virus companies rather than a single group that no one had heard of before," he said.
Cluley questioned the group's refusal to release the virus code to established anti-virus firms, saying the conduct could leave people vulnerable.
"Right now, none of us can protect against this virus because we haven't seen the code," Cluley said. "At the moment, it is really hard for us to ascertain whether this is a serious threat or a curiosity because it has not been shared with any anti-virus company."
Peikari argued that many anti-virus companies are just not used to playing ball on someone else's field. The companies are free to propose other terms for the membership agreement, he said and added that, in the end, the group does not need to be part of the wider anti-virus industry.
"We do not need greater acceptance," Peikari said. "We are strictly involved with mobile security. It's a rather small field, and very unrelated to traditional anti-virus."
Anti-virus firm Symantec was not able to immediately comment on the issue(Symantec is the parent company of SecurityFocus).
This article originally appeared in Security Focus.
Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus