Sharks patrol these waters

Last weekend’s story that The New York Times was attacked by Chinese hackers following a story exposing the financial details of the nation’s Premier doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anybody following either China or computer security issues.

Another aspect in the story that doesn’t surprise is the poor performance of The New York Times‘ anti-virus software. According to Forbes, Symantec only caught one malware program out of the 45 installed by the hackers.

I have an entirely rational hatred of Symantec. While running an IT support business, their products were the bane of our lives and we encouraged users to choose alternative security software because of the unreliability of many of Symantec products, particularly the once proud Norton brand that was aimed at home and small business users.

At the time of the great malware epidemic in the early 2000s, Norton Anti-Virus had a huge market share and it proved to be worse than useless against the various forms of drive by downloads and infected sites that were exploiting weaknesses in Microsoft Windows 98 and XP systems.

The common culprit was Windows ActiveX scripting language that Microsoft had introduced to standardise its web features. While a good idea, Microsoft made ActiveX a fundamental part of Windows and gave the features full access into the inner workings of the system.

Sadly, Symantec made the decision to run all their security software on ActiveX as well.

As ActiveX was the main target for malware writers it meant that Norton AntiVirus or their Security suite would crash in a heap once a computer became infected and the Symantec software would actively interfere with attempts to clean up a compromised system.

Making matters worse was Symantec’s subscription policies which cut customers off from vital updates and their bizarre policy of not including important upgrades in their automated updating function.

All of these factors made Symantec a loathed product in our office. It wasn’t helped by a generation of tech journalists who wrote gushing stories about Symantec, gave their products favourable reviews despite the company’s lousy reputation and consulted their employees for expert comment.

It wasn’t tech journalism’s finest hour. What really grates is the number of these folk still peddling nonsense about IT security and anti-virus software.

That distrust of Symantec continues to this day and those of us who struggled with their products a decade ago are not surprised at their poor performance on The New York Times‘ network.

In defence of Symantec, the Chinese hackers are very good and it’s unlikely any security software would stand up to a sustained and determined attack from them or their counterparts in the US and Israeli governments.

So we have to accept that these breaches and attacks are a real threat to any computer and any organisation. It may well be we should build our security strategies around the assumption the bad guys are already in the system rather than believe we can build a giant electronic fort to keep the bad guys out.

One thing is for sure, you can’t rely solely on anti-virus software to secure your IT systems.

Paul Wallbank speaks and writes on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn’t explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations through his business Netsmarts.

eBusiness, Seven Steps to Online Success is Paul’s latest book which looks at how businesses can effectively use web services like social media and cloud computing. It is available at all good bookshops or through the publisher, John Wiley & Sons. Subscribe to the Business Tech Talk RSS.

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