In early February, anti-virus firms warned customers about a computer virus programmed to delete files on the third of each month, but almost every company called the program by a different name.
A month later, the companies still use a hodge-podge of monikers for the program: Blackmal, Nyxem, MyWife, KamaSutra, Blackworm, Tearec and Worm_Grew all describe the same mass-mailing computer virus. The slew of names underscore that while anti-virus companies have been able to agree on the name for some threats, such as the recent Mac OS X worms, at other times, the companies instead go their own way and race to get public acceptance of their name for a particular threat.
The result: Consumers and customers don't always know which threat to be worried about, said Dan Nadir, vice president of product strategy for network-protection firm ScanSafe.
"We had a problem that a person would say, 'I know about MyWife, but what about this new threat, KamaSutra?'" Nadir said in a recent interview. "That confusion is a big issue."
On 3 March, the payload installed on computers infected with the Nyxem-Blackmal-KamaSutra virus triggered for a second time, threatening to delete about a dozen different types of data file. While the attack affected few people's systems, it again underscored that, without common names, identifying attacks that threaten a broad range of networks is nearly impossible. Making the situation worse, attackers' attempts to generate programs that can avoid being recognised by security software means that the number of seemingly discreet attacks is skyrocketing.
"I often wondered what biologists would do if they were discovering hundreds of species every week, and the same new species all over the world at the same time," said Joe Wells, chief scientist for security research at anti-spyware software maker Sunbelt Software. "They would have the same problems that we have."
Those problems are not likely to go away. Members of the anti-virus industry stressed that, whenever a new virus is found, response tends to be the priority, not assigning a name to the threat. Yet even here anti-virus players had a hard time agreeing - other members of the industry blamed the rush to get word of significant viruses out to the media as a roadblock to efforts to settle on a single name for threats.
"Every company will try to beat every other company to press, so there is no time to correlate the names," said Jimmy Kuo, chief scientist for anti-virus firm McAfee.
While the virus-of-many-names episode highlighted the continuing issues for the average internet user, the incident became the first success - albeit a moderate one - for an effort to create a single identifier among responders for common threats. While consumers may have scratched their heads about which threat to be worried about, incident response teams and information-technology managers had a single name for the attack, CME-24.
The designation comes from the Common Malware Enumeration (CME) Project, an initiative spearheaded by federal contractor MITRE Corp. The project does not intend to solve the naming problem for consumers, but to provide a neutral common identifier that incident responders can use, said Desiree Beck, MITRE's technology leader for the project.
"In general, CME-24 was implemented very successfully - the majority of the anti-virus companies were using it right away and it was picked up by various advisory organisations," Beck said in a recent interview. Letting responders know that multiple names refer to a single threat is important as a greater number of countries are designating national response teams to deal with cybersecurity incidents, she said.
The MITRE Corp has had success in creating identifiers for a different kind of security issue - vulnerabilities. The group's Common Vulnerabilities and Exposure (CVE) list is now used by most major vulnerability databases and software companies to assign identifiers to the thousands of vulnerabilities found every year.
Having a single identifier did help incident responders, said Alex Shipp, senior anti-virus technologist at MessageLabs, which interdicts, on average, five samples of new malicious software in email every day.
"In talking with our customers, they said it helped," Shipp said during an interview at the RSA Security Conference last month. "By checking on the list of names (for the CME identifier), you know what you are talking about and what they are talking about."
Still, not everyone used the staid system of monikers. The computer emergency response team (CERT) in India, the country hardest hit by CME-24, renewed warnings about the worm this month, but failed to use the common identifier.
And, getting the media on board will be a lot tougher, MITRE's Beck said.
"CME-24 is very functional but it's not very sexy," she said. "Something like KamaSutra is more sexy and it's going to get more people to read your articles."
The anti-virus industry has brainstormed over ways to create general purpose names that everyone in the industry would use, but no single method has seemed to work, said Vincent Weafer, senior director for Symantec's security response group (Symantec is the owner of SecurityFocus).
"There was an idea that the name could be picked off a list of names, like hurricanes," Weafer said. "But if we called it 'Alice', then it wouldn't be easily understandable to the user. KamaSutra, a name taken from the subject line, is more easily recognisable."
Moreover, anti-virus firms seem less likely to cooperate as a virus gets more media attention. The viruses that become media darlings are frequently the ones that each antivirus vendor attempts to name. Thus, MSBlast also became known as Blaster, Lovesan and Poza, and the Bagle virus was also called Beagle. The top viruses frequently have a host of aliases, said Sunbelt Software's Wells, who also founded a catalog of current viruses known as the WildList.
"If we can't get any agreement for the top 700 viruses on the WildList, we are not going to get agreement on the rest of the thousands we see every year," he said.
So for consumers, at least, virus naming seems likely to remain a source of confusion.
This article originally appeared in Security Focus.
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