How Antivirus Companies Handle State-Sponsored Malware
Since we learned that the NSA has surreptitiously weakened Internet security so it could more easily eavesdrop, we’ve been wondering if it’s done anything to antivirus products. Given that it engages in offensive cyberattacks — and launches cyberweapons like Stuxnet and Flame — it’s reasonable to assume that it’s asked antivirus companies to ignore its malware. (We know that antivirus companies have previously done this for corporate malware.)
My guess is that the NSA has not done this, nor has any other government intelligence or law enforcement agency. My reasoning is that antivirus is a very international industry, and while a government might get its own companies to play along, it would not be able to influence international companies. So while the NSA could certainly pressure McAfee or Symantec — both Silicon Valley companies — to ignore NSA malware, it could not similarly pressure Kaspersky Labs (Russian), F-Secure (Finnish), or AVAST (Czech). And the governments of Russia, Finland, and the Czech Republic will have comparable problems.
Even so, I joined a group of security experts to ask antivirus companies explicitly if they were ignoring malware at the behest of a government. Understanding that the companies could certainly lie, this is the response so far: no one has admitted to doing so.
Up until this moment, only a handful of the vendors have replied ESET, F-Secure, Norman Shark, Kaspersky, Panda and Trend Micro. All of the responding companies have confirmed the detection of state sponsored malware, e.g. R2D2 and FinFisher. Furthermore, they claim they have never received a request to not detect malware. And if they were asked by any government to do so in the future, they said they would not comply. All the aforementioned companies believe there is no such thing as harmless malware.