Anti‑Malware testing needs standards, and testers need to adopt them

A closer look at Anti-Malware tests and the sometimes unreliable nature of the process.

A closer look at Anti-Malware tests and the sometimes unreliable nature of the process.

Imagine one of your children is a high school student and due to take university or college entrance exams. You know the exams are due at some time during the year, have an idea what the exam may include and are patiently awaiting notification for more details. Regardless of not knowing exactly what is in the exam, your diligent student stays home and studies hard in preparation.

At the very last moment your student hears, unofficially, that the exam is scheduled, but no details are available. Stressed and frustrated, your student does get included in the exam.

After the exam you find out that some students were sent notifications and details on the content of the exam: they were also allowed to take certain equipment with them to assist their participation. After the exam, those same students were given the opportunity to see their results and negotiate the scoring of the questions they got wrong to improve their final score.

I suspect you would be upset, maybe angry, and would likely object to the unfair process that your child endured. Would it be fair if a university or college then used the exam results to make a decision on whether to offer your child a place?

The anti-malware industry and its ability to detect the attempts of cybercriminals to harm or render systems useless may often appear to be a dark art to people looking in from outside the industry. That’s the very reason why testing the efficacy of products is important, so that you don’t need to be an expert to understand if a product works well, or not.

However, tests are only as good as the competence and ethics of the tester and while most practice good ethics there are some that don’t. For example, if a test has questionable methodology, or includes vendor participants with a special relationship with the tester, or allows some vendors to optimize their products, or is just run badly, then the results are brought into question.

The security industry has grappled with this very issue for some time: the formation of the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization (AMTSO) in 2008 was intended to bring the two sides, testers and vendors, together and create a forum for dialogue. The purpose and charter of AMTSO, in summary, is to provide such a forum, create standards and best practices, provide education on testing and to create tools and resources to aid standards-based testing.

AMTSO is in the process of creating standards: they published a draft agreed, in December, by the membership, made up of testers, vendors and academics. It would seem reasonable that a tester member of AMTSO should conduct tests adhering to the draft standards, after all they are part of the organization that created them, and some testers have conducted tests based on the draft, with success.

Any test run, even without formally following the standards, should be conducted using fair and unbiased conditions. For example, if some vendors are given the opportunity to configure their product to optimize the final result or are granted other privileged access during the test, then all vendors should be afforded the same advantages. If the playing field is not level then it should be clear who had the benefits and more importantly who did not.

There are further questionable practices: what if a vendor pays to be tested just before a group test? Should this be noted in the test result that follows? Imagine the scenario where a test methodology is published, a vendor pays to be tested against it to see what result they may achieve. When the actual test is run they may have optimized detection to suit the test, but does this reflect the result a purchaser of the product could expect to see in normal use? Probably not.

After a test has been conducted there is typically a period of time where vendors are given the opportunity to validate the results: that is, decide whether they agree with what they missed or wrongly detected (known as a false positive). In my experience, some testers use this later stage to monetize their testing – if you want the results to validate then you need to pay – while other testers only allow certain vendors to validate their test results. Segmenting vendors so that only certain ones are allowed to validate results creates test results that cannot be used to compare products fairly or accurately.

When a Chief Security Officer (CSO) picks up a report showing the efficacy of anti-malware products, it is only natural to be drawn straight to the graph that displays the percentage of malware detected. And when a vendor’s marketing team members use the test results they only include the graph. If the tester has hidden, deep in the report, some of the inconsistencies of the terms under which different vendors participated, they are unlikely to ever be read or considered when looking at the final results.

If the test report is going to be used to make a crucial decision on what protection to select then it’s critical that the methodology, commercial relationships and ethics behind the test are taken into account. If this information cannot be gleaned from the information in the report then contacting the tester for clarification is a must.

It’s important that a test takes place on a level playing field and that all the teams taking part are afforded the same conditions, opportunities and validation options. If they are not, then the results are biased in favor of the vendors that were afforded privileged conditions, and the results belong in the circular grey filing cabinet under my desk.

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