Security Experts:

Once More 'Round the AMTSO Wheel of Pain

A few days ago I got back from an AMTSO workshop in Munich. AMTSO is the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization, and I also wrote about it back in June. It’s essentially a coalition of organizations with an interest in improving anti-malware testing, and as you might expect, its current membership largely consists of security vendors and testers. Why would you expect that? Well, of course, lots of people have an interest in evaluating the effectiveness of security software. However, most won’t be prepared to spend 2,000 Euros for the privilege of having a say in how AMTSO tries to address the current problems in testing. Vendors and testers, of course, have a professional (vested, if you like) interest in tests. Honest vendors (yes, they do exist!) would prefer to have their products evaluated fairly (though marketers might have a slightly different perspective to researchers, of course...) while testers prefer to get credit for reliable and honest tests.

Anti-Malware Industry

Interested individuals and organizations outside the security industry, though, are less likely to raid their piggy banks in return for a vote on a guidelines document.

It might be said, then, that one of the most significant activities at the Munich workshop actually took comparatively little time on the agenda, though it’s actually been discussed from time to time for a good while. (In fact, I referred to it in my June article, and that certainly wasn’t its first airing.) And since there’s already been some misinterpretation of the meaning of this development, let me try to clarify. Though this is the way I see it, not an official AMTSO statement.

The AMTSO membership (as represented at the workshop) agreed to implement a subscription model that will allow individuals and small organizations to participate in AMTSO activities in exchange for a small fee, probably 20 Euros or thereabouts. Subscribers will be able to take part in internal discussions, the document creation process and so on in pretty much the same way as full members (or, in the case of corporate members, their representatives).

You may wonder why there’s such a huge difference between membership fees and subscription fees. Well, some of the cost of membership goes towards the not inconsiderable cost of maintaining the organization, which is why the current membership mostly consists of people who have a significant financial interest in improving testing. Some of it goes towards the cost of organizing AMTSO workshops and of having delegates attend. Subscribers will also be able to attend workshops, but will have to pay to cover administrative costs (members also do this if they want to send extra people to a workshop: that is people other than those individuals who represent an Entity Member). And only full members can vote (one vote per individual or entity). The detail has yet to be worked out, but we aim to have the subscription mechanism in place on January 1st 2011.

Details on AMTSO's new subscription option are available here, and Neil Rubenking, a member of AMTSO’s Advisory Board, has some useful commentary here. Other commentary, friendly or not, is listed on the “AMTSO in the media page." That brings us to Kevin Townsend, who could never be described as AMTSO’s best friend. However, he did raise a point worth addressing in his response to the press release.

It is nowhere near what I personally would like to see: the recruitment of senior technicians from some of the major corporate AV users; with full voting rights. If this simply isn’t possible, perhaps AMTSO could tell us why?

This puzzled me at first. After all, the AMTSO membership page states that:

AMTSO membership is open to any corporation, institution or unaffiliated individual interested in participating in this organization.

But then I realized that he might have been misled by this statement on the AMTSO home page:

AMTSO membership is open to academics, reviewers, publications, testers and vendors, subject to guidelines determined by AMTSO.

I believe that this wording was chosen to highlight our expected membership, rather than to limit it to those named groups. It would have been naive to assume that organizations whose revenue stream isn’t significantly impacted by the state of testing would be queuing up to pay for full membership. And while the “subject to guidelines” proviso may sound a little like Weaselspeak, I think that’s intended to give the organization means to filter out-and-out destructive behaviour and mischief-making, not reasoned debate over differences of opinion. (Anyone who thinks that an AMTSO meeting could ever be a meek assembly of nodding heads knows little of the security industry!)

As a matter of fact, the participation of knowledgeable techs from outside the security industry was a cornerstone of the foundation and evolution of AVIEN (the Anti-Virus Information Exchange Network, in which I’ve been active for many years. In its early years, there was suspicion on both sides of the vendor/customer divide: vendors were afraid that darkside sample trading and whispering campaigns were taking place on closed lists, while customers wanted a marketing-free zone. Over time, we found that the real strength of the organization was the exchange of information between technically knowledgeable customers and their counterparts in the security industry, and AVIEN merged with the Anti-Virus Information and Early Warning group, its sister organization. I don’t think AMTSO needs to learn that lesson all over again, but perhaps it needs to make it clearer that it has already benefited from that earlier experience.

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David Harley CITP FBCS CISSP is Research Fellow and Director of Malware Intelligence at ESET LLC , Chief Operations Officer at AVIEN, and on the Board of directors of AMTSO. He is a prolific blogger and author of security-focused conference papers and articles. His books include “Viruses Revealed” (Osborne/McGraw-Hill) and the “AVIEN Malware Defense Guide” (Syngress.) He joined ESET's Research team in January 2008 as Research Author, and was appointed Director of Malware Intelligence in August 2008.