Windows 8 brings malware improvements, says researcher

With Microsoft Windows 8 soon to arrive, aspects of the new operating system related to anti-malware protection and other security features are getting a lot of attention.

With Windows 8, Microsoft is taking a distinctly different -- and likely far better -- approach to how anti-malware will run in comparison to earlier versions of Windows, says Aryeh Goretsky, researcher at antivirus software firm ESET. Microsoft's approach, called "Early Launch Anti-Malware," basically means the first software driver to be loaded into the Windows 8 OS upon its use will be the driver of the user's anti-malware software. This is a major change because "before, it was a 'no man's land,'" says Goretsky, meaning loading driver software on the user's machine was random and "a malicious device driver" could get there first, allowing the malware to trump the anti-malware and maybe turn it off.

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Microsoft has put in some protections to ensure that anti-malware from vendors that have gone through Microsoft's digital-signing review process will be loaded up first to check to see if a system is clean before continuing the boot process, says Goretsky. There is one wrinkle in all this in that Microsoft itself is shipping its own anti-malware software with Windows 8 called Windows Defender.

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So unless the user has Windows Defender uninstalled, this will be the first antivirus software to load up. Since some computer suppliers make money through partnerships with the larger anti-malware vendors such as Symantec and McAfee, they may uninstall it before the Windows 8-based computer makes it to the consumer, Goretsky notes. But in the uninstalling of antivirus software—whether it's Microsoft's or another vendor's—Microsoft has also made huge progress in Windows 8, according to Goretsky.

That because for the first time, Microsoft's requirements make it clear how security software packages have to neatly be removed at command off Windows 8 when that's the user request. The dirty little secret of the industry has been that anti-malware software has long been known to make registry changes and other modifications to the OS that basically make it hard to return to its previous state, says Goretsky. He says often there's a mess of device drivers and services left running after an anti-malware package has in theory been uninstalled. This makes the OS not as simple for the next anti-malware software to deal with. "We're as guilty of this as anyone else," says Goretsky.

There are other aspects of Windows 8 security to be appreciated, he points out. One big one is what's called the "Unified Extensible Firmware Interface" that requires digitally signed firmware to be used in booting up to prevent a rootkit from making it in. This secure boot process is supported through the UEFI industry standard. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has been a strong proponent of this secure-boot process.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: @MessmerE. Email: emessmer@nww.com.

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