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Tuesday, November 11 12:01 EST

McAfee to Tag and Release Viruses

By Kristian Werner

Cupertino, CA - Tom Smith, Vice President, McAfee Security Response announced "the next generation of security software," with VirusTagging added to its Anti-Virus software. Both the corporate and home editions of the software will incorporate the new technology.

Also existing "Scan and Deliver," users will be able to "Tag and Release" viruses placed in Quarantine. This places a unique tag in the virus's code, and then releases the virus, usually by sending an e-mail to a randomly chosen person in the users Outlook address book.

After the virus has been tagged and released, the program sends the information to McAfee Security Response. Smith stressed that no personally identifiable information was transmitted, only the tag, virus data, and key statistics about the system, such as operating system and applied security patches. The "Tag and Release" option would be enabled by default, but could easily be switched off.

"The interesting part is when we find a virus that already has a tag," continued Smith. "Then we can find out what he's been up to."

In biology and statistics, the technique is known as "capture - recapture," and is often used to discover the size of a population, for example a species of animal in a particular region. In many ways the virus hunter's job resembles that of the biologist- computer viruses are constantly moving, reproducing, and dying. Hackers could fake tags, or they could be lost. However in other ways their job may be easier, in that tagged viruses are no more or less likely to be caught than others.

So what is wrong with the old-fashioned way of simply removing viruses when they are found? Nothing, said Smith, "but that only solves the problem for a single user, on one computer, with one virus." By identifying how various 'breeds' of viruses spread, it could be determined which reasons contribute to the relative 'success' of certain computer viruses. Smith mentioned operating systems and network topologies as key point of interest, but stressed that this would be a long-term effort.

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ZDNet's Frank Simpson said the idea had some merit, but added the technology is still untested. "Also, it's not a given that consumers will benefit from this," said Simpson. "Let's say Symantec comes up with their own tagging technology. What happens if your Symantec Anti-Virus finds a McAfee-tagged virus? Does it add it's own tag? In that case these viruses are going to grow real fast. Does it remove the competing tag? Hello lawsuit. This could be the browser wars again, only bigger."

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