Special Edition is the blog for security testing business SE Labs. It explains how we test security products, reports on the internet threats we find and provides security tips for businesses, other organisations and home users.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

The best security tests keep it real

Why it's important not to try to be too clever

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Realism is important in testing, otherwise you end up with results that are theoretical and not a useful report that closely represents what is going on in the real world. One issue facing security testing that involves malware is whether or not you connect the test network to the internet.

The argument against this approach is that computer viruses can spread automatically and a test could potentially infect the real world, making life worse for computer users globally. One counter argument goes that if the tester is helping improve products then a few dozen extra infected systems on the internet is, on balance, worth it considering there are already millions out there. The benefits outweigh the downside.

Another counter argument is that viruses such as we understand them from the 90s are not the same as they are today. There are far fewer self-replicating worms and more targeted attacks that do not generally spread automatically, so the risk is lower.

Connecting to the internet brings more than a few advantages to a test, too. Firstly, the internet is where most threats reside. It would be hard to test realistically with a synthetic internet.

Secondly, for at least 10 years most endpoint security products have made connections back to management or update servers to get the latest information about current threats. So-called 'cloud protection' or 'cloud updates' would be disabled without an internet connection, effectively reducing the products' protection abilities significantly. This then makes the test results much less accurate when running assessments.

There are cases in which turning off the internet is useful, though. Last year we ran a test to check whether or not artificial intelligence could predict future threats. We ran our Predictive Malware Response Test without an internet connection to see if a Cylance AI brain, which had been built and trained three years previously, could detect well-known threats that had come into existence since then. You can see the full report here.

But that was a special case. When assessing any security product or service for real-world, practical purposes, a live and unfiltered internet connection is probably a useful and even necessary part of the setup.

Naturally we have always used one in our testing, at one point even going as far as using consumer ADSL lines when testing home anti-malware products for extra realism. When reading security tests check that the tester has a live internet connection and allows the products to update themselves.

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If you spot a detail in this report that you don't understand, or would like to discuss, please contact us via our Twitter or Facebook accounts.

SE Labs uses current threat intelligence to make our tests as realistic as possible. To learn more about how we test, how we define 'threat intelligence' and how we use it to improve our tests please visit our website and follow us on Twitter.

This test report was funded by post-test consultation services provided by SE Labs to security vendors. Vendors of all products included in this report were able to request early access to results and the ability to dispute details for free. SE Labs has submitted the testing process behind this report for compliance with the AMTSO Testing Protocol Standard v1.0. To verify its compliance please check the AMTSO reference link at the bottom of page three of this report or here.

UPDATE (24th July 2019): The tests were found to be compliant with AMTSO's Standard.

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