Antivirus tools are designed to keep corporate networks healthy, but this kind of virtual medicine often comes with troubling side effects. In December 2015, for example, memory allocation issues made it possible to compromise AVG, McAfee and Kaspersky Lab products, Dark Reading reported.

According to CIO Online, Symantec is now on the list thanks to a high-risk exploit that Google researcher Tavis Ormandy said “is about as bad as it can possibly get.”

Symantec’s Protection Prognosis

It’s worth mentioning upfront that Symantec has already released a fix for this issue in its Antivirus Engine 20151.1.1.4 update on May 16. Companies that haven’t patched their systems need to do so right now since even the security company itself gives this vulnerability a 9.1 out of 10 on the CVSS severity scale.

So what’s the big deal? First, the flaw is cross-platform, which means that Linux, Mac and Windows machines are all under threat. More worrisome? All it takes is a malicious email attachment containing a file header identifying it as an ASPack compression.

It gets worse: Users don’t even need to open the email. Once Symantec’s antivirus product scans the attachment, it’s automatically unpacked in the OS kernel — the most privileged part of any system.

On Linux, Mac and UNIX platforms, the result is a remote heap overflow, while in Windows, the flaw results in a remote ring0 memory corruption causing an immediate system crash or blue screen of death. Actors can also infect systems by sending along a malicious link, but that requires confidence that users will blindly follow instructions. Why bother when the antivirus tools will do all the heavy lifting?

Evolving Antivirus Programs

More than a few antivirus programs have come under fire for having their own security flaws. While vendors are often quick to respond with patches and live updates, this is a dangerous trend in the making.

Researchers haven’t been silent and have been blasting companies for years about unsafe scanning processes that — if exploited — can lead to more serious compromises than most malware payloads could hope to achieve.

It’s a relatable conundrum: Security companies don’t want to lose their share of the market and often choose speed over safety, something corporate IT departments struggle with on a daily basis. But the continuing parade of bad medicine stories suggests that it’s time for a change; using kernel privileges carries the risk of Heartbleed-like failure and simply isn’t worthwhile in the long term.

Bottom line? Antivirus tools need to evolve if they want to stay competitive. Businesses can’t afford antivirus cures worse than the disease.

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