Who's the Gatekeeper?
The Quick Version
You need a company who really knows what they are doing to make sure that only safe software gets onto your computer. You get that with the app stores of modern systems. You don't get that on Windows and that's the reason it will never be safe, no matter how much anti-virus software you have.
Who gets to decide what software runs on your computer? "It's my computer", you say in a macho get out of my way kind of way, "I will decide". An obvious reply, but one that is almost certainly not in your interests. Understanding why is probably the most important lesson to learn if you would like to know why security on Windows has become an Oxymoron.
THE RISE OF WINDOWS
When Windows emerged onto the market it was just one of many different options that people could use to do computing things. They had to compete. One of the key things they did to compete was to make it easy for programmers to write software for Windows. This was a great move. More software meant they sold more copies of Windows, more copies of Windows in the market encouraged programmers to write more stuff for Windows. It's a virtuous cycle which led to millions of software programs being available on Windows and currently about 1.5 billion people using Windows.
But like many virtues, it has a vice. Yes it was easy for good programmers to write useful software for Windows, but it was also easy for evil scumbag criminals to write all sorts of nasty infections for Windows. An entire industry worth billions of dollars every year has been created on the back of this. And yet, the modern alternatives to Windows don't suffer from this. How so?
Open Systems, Closed Systems
Let's say I'm in the mood to write some software for Windows right now. What does that take? I fire up a piece of software called a compiler and start writing. When I am done I can send the result to anyone with a Windows PC and they can run it. I can put it on a website, send it on a memory stick, anything I want.
Now let's suppose I have turned to the dark side and instead of writing something useful, I write something to encrypt your family photo collection and demand a ransom. What's stopping me distributing this in exactly the same way? Absolutely nothing.
"What about anti-virus software?" you cry. Anti-virus software looks for bad stuff it knows about, what we call a "Black List". Brand new bad stuff is largely invisible to it. It takes time before bad stuff is found in the wild and added to the black list. During that time, it can have a field day. To be fair, anti-virus software will try to spot new bad stuff by the actions it takes (what is called heuristic searching), but it's a hit and miss process with a low success rate. If anti-virus software worked, the multi-billion dollar computer crime industry would shrivel. Instead, it's growing.
The Modern Approach
Now compare this with what happens if I want to write the same piece of software for an iPad (other modern alternatives are similar in their approach, iPad is the most locked down). Before I get to write any software, I have to register with Apple as a developer. When I have written my software I have to cryptographically sign it to prove that I am the author. At this point I cannot just give the software to anyone to run on their iPad/iPhone. I have to send it to Apple. They will check that I haven't done anything evil. Then they put it into their App Store for people to download. When it runs on the iPad/iPhone, it runs in what we call a "sandbox", which means it is very restricted in what it can access. For the most part I don't get to mess around with anything else on the system. And here's the kicker: if my app is subsequently found to be a bad one, Apple can, with a single kill switch, take it off of every iPad and iPhone in the world!
These are two very different approaches and they produce very different outcomes. Hundreds of millions of Windows PCs with infections (see Viruses and Junk Software): no iPads or iPhones with infections.
You need an organisation who knows what they are doing deciding what software comes onto your computers. You get that with something like an iPad. Apple are trying to make it very difficult for bad stuff to get into their app store and the app store is the only place you can get software for an iPad. They have done a good job. At the time of this writing, 1.2 million apps, all OK.
The same applies with the laptop your company might give you. Your company IT department are super fussy about what software they will let go on it (see Business PCs) and they sure as hell won't let you install whatever you feel like on it, they know that would be the road to doom!
In both cases you have someone else, someone who knows what they are doing being the gatekeeper to what comes onto your computer. That is vital to staying safe. If you are the gatekeeper and you are a normal person (ie not someone who lives and breathes geeky things all day and night and lots and lots of time to test everything), you will be toast. The evil criminals will try every trick they can think of (and they are a creative lot) to fool you into putting their evil wares onto your computer.
Think of it as like living in a gated community. That's what the modern systems like iOS and Chrome OS are like. They are the gated communities with a security guard on the gate making sure that only the nice people get in. Windows is the slum area down by the docks, the place where the police don't go. Anyone can get in there, no matter how evil. For more details see The Security Hierarchy.
The Move from Black list to White list
Windows security is currently based on the notion of "black lists". Any thing is allowed to run, unless it's on a black list of evil things (supplied by the anti-virus software). Clearly, that's not working because enough bad stuff is getting through to sustain a huge criminal industry.
In companies nothing is allowed to run unless it has been very carefully checked and added to the "white list" of programs that are allowed in. These white lists are typically tiny. Maybe a dozen programs. The black lists have millions of entries. It's obvious which list is going to be better curated. That's why the infection rate on company PCs is so much lower than home PCs. The same model applies when we look at something like an iPad. To get into Apple's App Store is to be added to the white list of good things.
In the white list situation, anything new is considered evil until it proves itself innocent. That works, that keeps people safe.
Why Microsoft cannot move to a white list
At this point you're thinking "This is easy, if all we need is a good gatekeeper Microsoft can step in to that role. Apple did with their app store and worked really well.". I would dearly love for that to be true. I like Windows, I would like to keep using it, but I also know that Microsoft cannot become the gatekeeper.
Sadly, no matter how much Microsoft want to, they cannot fix this. They have painted themselves into a corner. This has been a problem for decades and it has not gotten fixed. The difference is that now more credible alternatives to Windows are emerging.
Here are the two reasons blocking them:
- Firstly, fixing it would break everything that went before.
- Secondly, anti-trust law would stop them fixing it.
Let's look at those:
To stop criminals writing vicious software for Windows would require such fundamental changes, that all the software that has been written for it up to now would stop working. Why do people buy Windows? Because it's familiar and it works with all their existing software and devices. Make the changes to lock down Windows and it would remove the reason people buy Windows in the first place. It would not be Windows any more. It would be Doors or Chaise Longue or Dog Biscuit or anything you want to call it, but not Windows, an entirely new creation. It would then have to compete with the now more established offerings of Chrome OS, iOS and Android. There would be no reason to buy it. Microsoft would love to fix the problem of security, but to do so would wipe out their income. Not something you do lightly when you are making billions from it.
The second problem is a "too many lawyers" type of problem (that really does crop up too much in modern living). When a company gets to have a dominant market share (in any industry, not just technology) legislation cuts in designed to stop such big companies beating up smaller companies. It's a part of the law called anti-trust. With a 90%+ market share for decades Microsoft is definitely the sort of company that is covered by anti-trust laws. They have stepped over the anti-trust line more than once before and been fined billions of dollars as a consequence. They came close to the judges demanding Microsoft be split up it was so bad.
For Microsoft to become the gatekeeper they would have to take total control of what software gets to run on Windows. Can you imagine how much fun the anti-trust lawyers would have with that one? The company would never survive.
For a long time I had hoped that the Anti-Virus software companies would step into the breach and offer white list solutions (they have certainly talked about it), but they haven't done it. I suspect because it would cost them a lot of money in three areas:
- They would have to setup a large infrastructure of people to check software before it was let into the store.
- They would need an even bigger team of lawyers to fight off all the junk software vendors saying they should be on the white list (which would totally devalue the list).
- They would take a lot of support calls from users who couldn't run things that they think are legitimate.
So the anti-virus software companies carry on making money in the short term, turning a blind eye to the fact that this problem will kill their golden goose in the longer term, because they are all listed companies who have to turn a profit every quarter.
Microsoft are absolutely aware that they are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to security on home computers, they are just not in a situation where they can fix it (or publicly admit to it). Are they doomed? No, they are moving to make more of their income from online services that run on all types of computers. They know that Windows is in decline, but it will be around for a long time to come. However it's only going one way and the speed of decline is especially fast in the home market, it's clear for anyone to see in the sales figures.
It is precisely because Windows does require you to be your own gatekeeper that it has become a cesspit of security problems. What's more, it's not possible for them to fix it. On that sad note, you had better read Windows or Not? next.
But this is all Nonsense!
The slaying of myths and misunderstandings
There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So let's prepare you for when someone "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.
Why are you against any anti-virus software?
I'm not. If you are running Windows or Android you need it. I am just aware of it's limitations. On it's own it is not enough to protect you. That's why this vast industry of computer crime exists. If anti-virus was enough on its own, no computer crime industry would exist.
Don't be shy, say what you think. The comment system below is there for anyone to ask a question or make a point. Especially don't hold back if you are a normal person just trying to make sense of it all. It's easy to get the opinions of geeks on geeky matters. Much more interesting to hear how this works out for you or what bits need more explanation. No such thing as a silly question, jump in.