Czech company Zoner Software has explained why it employed a prominent former virus writer to develop anti-virus software on its behalf. The firm - whose main business is graphics and multimedia - hired Benny, one-time member of the 29A virus writing group, to develop security software to protect servers run by Zoner's Internet division.
Benny, 22, has become the main developer of this Zoner Anti-Virus (ZAV) product. Although this product is not being sold to end users yet (though this is a possibility for the future), Zoner's appointment is still controversial. In general, the industry wants to distance itself from malware authors and to discourage the idea that writing viruses is a path into a lucrative career in computer security. Zoner said it hired Benny because he was skilled in computer security and - despite his previous activities - committed to making a positive contribution.
Erik Piper, of Zoner software, explained: "Paradoxically, Benny's works, even though they have been in the virus creation and virus proof-of-concept areas, have been good proof that he understands how computer security attacks work, what are common approaches, what cutting-edge approaches are coming up, etc. Virus coders frequently state that the security approach in this or that product is naive; we believe no such objection could be made to Benny's work."
"Still, this would be immaterial if we felt that Benny had no sense of morality. Fortunately, we do not have such a feeling. Benny's focus has been on proof-of-concept and on pointing out flaws where none were thought to exist; the number one thing that drives him is an urge to prove his technical skill and creativity, not to hurt others. Work in the anti-virus field gives him an opportunity to satisfy this urge while guaranteeing that the work won't be hurting others. On our side, it's a chance to hire someone of proven skill," he added.
Sympathy for the devil
Benny, 22, was involved in the computer virus underground for five years, culminating in his membership of 29A (hex for '666'). 29A is well known for developing proof of concept code not mass mailing viruses. Benny's chief claim to fame was the creation of virus designed to infect Windows 2000 two weeks before the release of the OS. He did this in order to humiliate the software giant. Benny claimed never to have released any of the viruses he wrote.
But how do Zoner's hosting clients know they are safe from the possibility that Benny might create a backdoor in systems? Zoner's Piper said that Benny was well aware that if he tried anything like this not only would he lose his job but he'd be unlikely to be employed in the Czech IT sector ever again.
Anti-virus firms commonly argue that the skills needed to develop security software are different from those needed to write malicious code. Piper said they may be some truth in this observation but that Benny was an exception to the rule.
"I don't think it's impossible for one human being to accommodate both skill sets. There's a tendency for them not to overlap, naturally, especially since the lifestyle and stances of a virus writer tend to promote haphazardness. But as that same person ages - Benny, for example, is now 22 - they mature. We take this for granted in non-programmers. Thus I don't believe it's unbelievable for programmers as well."
Securepoint partner terminates relationship
The employment of former VXers by computer security firms is rare but not unprecedented. German security company Securepoint created a controversy back in September when it hired Sven Jaschan, self-confessed creator of the notoriously destructive NetSky and Sasser worms, as a trainee software developer. Jaschan is working on developing Securepoint's firewall products.
German antivirus software manufacturer H+BEDV announcing today that it had withdrawn its cooperation with SecurePoint because of its decision to hire the alleged virus author as a trainee. SecurePoint worked with H+BEDV as a sales and technology partner but this relationship has been put on hold. The decision illustrates how sensitive anti-virus firms are about having any association with virus writers, reformed or not. Even though everyone is keen to see former virus writers rehabilitated, many security firms would rather this was done outside the IT security industry.
"We take a dim view of employing virus authors. The attempt to offer a second chance to an allegedly reformed virus author must be balanced against the exclusive security interests of our customers," said Tjark Auerbach, chief exec and founder of H+BEDV.
"Whatever SecurePoint does is its own decision, but I do not wish to see any stage of our product development closely linked to an alleged virus author. After weighing all the pros and cons, I cannot truly support the decision by SecurePoint. Although it has been reported that the 18-year-old has expressed regret about writing the viruses, the tolerance shown to him is nevertheless questionable, he added. ®
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