Friday, November 27, 2009

The Other Google Desktop

Two weeks ago the Economist ran an interesting article Calling All Cars, describing how systems such as OnStar (GM) and Sync (Ford) that were conceived for roadside assistance have expanded beyond their original service offerings to include remote tracking and deactivation (car won’t start), slowing down a moving car to a halt (no high speed chases), fault diagnosis and timely servicing. Even so, 60,000 OnStar subscribers a month still use the service to unlock their cars – the auto equivalent of password resets.

I have often wondered why AV vendors have not leveraged their platforms and infrastructure significantly beyond their initial offerings in the same way. The larger vendors that service enterprise customers have a sophisticated update network for clients, that feeds into corporate networks for secondary distribution internally. Desktops are equipped with software for searching against a database of signatures, accepting or initiating dynamic updates, plus monitoring and reporting. Surely this is a basis for useful enterprise applications beyond the necessary but not so business-friendly task of malware scanning?

It is widely reported that the traditional AV signature cycle of detect-produce-distribute is being overwhelmed, and the effectiveness of AV solutions is decreasing. So AV companies should be on the lookout for new and perhaps non-traditional functionality. But even if this was not the case it would be worthwhile to consider additional services bootstrapped off the installed base.

I think one generalization would be the extension of the search capability away from signature matching towards a Google desktop model - away from search-and-destroy to search-and-deliver. Imagine if Norton or Kaspersky were presented to users as document management systems permitting tagging, search of file content, indexing, and database semantics for files – that is, provide a useful service to users beyond informing them that opening this file would not be a good idea.

In the corporate setting, desktop document search and analysis could provide many useful functions. Let’s take data classification for example. I am not sure if we can ever expect people to label documents for data sensitivity. Even if people were resolved to be diligent in the new year, there would still be a large legacy problem. Imagine now that senior management could create a list of sensitive documents and then feed them into an indexer, which distributed data classification “signatures” to desktops. The local software can scan for matching documents (exact or related), create the correct labelling and perhaps even inform the users that such documents should be dealt with carefully, perhaps even pop-up the data classification policy as a reminder.

You could also track the number of copies and location of a given sensitive document, such as a drafts of quarterly financial results, which must be distributed for review but only within a select group. Again management could define which documents need to be tracked and feed them into a signature engine for propagation to desktops. If a document fell outside the defined review group, then a flag could be raised. When a sensitive document is detected as being attached to an email the user can be reminded that the contents should be encrypted, certainly if the recipients are external to the company, and perhaps prevented from even sending the document at all.

The general innovation here is to permit client management to define search and response functions for deployment within the AV infrastructure, extending beyond the malware updates from the vendor. I think there are many possible applications for managing documents (and other information) on the basis of the present AV infrastructure for distribution, matching and scanning, especially if local management could create their own signatures.

I have to admit that I am not overly familiar with DLP solution capabilities, and perhaps some of my wish list is already here today. I would be glad to hear about it.

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