Survey: Corporate PCs cluttered with malware

Many enterprise and government PCs are filled with unauthorized software, including malware, according to the results of a new survey from Bit9.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

Despite the efforts of IT departments, many PCs in the corporate and government world are littered with unauthorized software, most notably malware, says application-whitelisting company Bit9.

The results of Bit9's "2010 What's Running on Your Users' Desktops?" survey, released Monday, uncovered PCs with a significant amount of non-business software, including games, toolbars, and torrent software. Of greater concern, IT pros surveyed also discovered malware, such as ransom-ware, Trojans, and Chinese spyware.

Among the 1,282 IT professionals questioned for the survey, 68 percent of them said they have software restrictions in place, but 45 percent said they still found unauthorized software on more than half of their client PCs.

Specifically, 46 percent of the IT folks surveyed said that spyware, malware, and unlicensed software continue to pose a problem by getting past traditional security methods. They also found that unauthorized or malicious software caused up to 25 percent of user downtime and calls to the help desk, leading to a drop in productivity. But 39 percent of the respondents also admitted they don't have a software usage policy that specifically prohibits employees from downloading their own software.

As a result, only 32 percent of the IT pros surveyed said they felt confident their businesses would be safe from damage caused by unauthorized or malicious software this year.

"The results from our survey once again underscore the need for companies to adopt a more proactive approach to endpoint security to prevent unauthorized software from being downloaded and running in their organizations," Tom Murphy, chief strategy officer for Bit9, said in a statement. "Rather than scrambling to react to the latest malicious piece of software--costing time and money--IT administrators need to ensure that only approved software will run in their enterprise. This is a business critical need confirmed by the large amount of respondents that are dealing with malware across their networks."

Now of course, Bit9 has a vested interest in the results of the survey since the company does sell whitelisting security products that help IT administrators lock down the applications their users can run.

But I know from my days in IT that keeping users from downloading and installing their own personal and sometimes harmful software is an ongoing challenge. People would download toolbars, torrent software, and other unauthorized programs and then complain when their PCs started to crash or slow down.

Cutting down on the amount of harmful software installed at a company has always required the right policies from IT but also the right cooperation from end users.

To learn more about the survey results, I spoke with Kate Munro, director of product marketing for Bit9. She said that this year's response from 1,282 IT folks was a big leap over last year when only 257 people answered the survey. The higher participation could be seen as a sign that IT people are more in tune with and naturally concerned about the malware threats surfacing today, said Munro.

She particularly noted IT concerns over the Advanced Persistent Threat, a buzzword that describes organized cyberattacks that specifically try to steal information from such sectors as financial services, manufacturing, and of course government.

Some of the non-malicious but still unauthorized software found on user PCs by IT included Skype, BitTorrent, and iTunes. Munro added that Skype can pose a problem when people use the personal version on their work PCs, since it doesn't have the same restrictions as the enterprise edition and relies on the user to keep it patched and properly updated.

Munro also said that malicious programs are being installed despite the best efforts of IT departments. Almost all of the participants said they deploy antivirus software on their network PCs. Many take away admin rights (which are typically needed to install a program), while others lock down the desktop using tools like Microsoft's Group Policy. But malware writers continue to sneak past security defenses to launch their payloads.