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Wired for security

McAfee CEO George Samenuk looks beyond PCs to stave off marauding viruses in new areas, including 3G phones.

McAfee has always been synonymous with PC security, but CEO George Samenuk intends to make a priority of protecting wireless networks and voice communications over the Internet.

New PC viruses and their variants have been appearing at unprecedented rates this year. Coupled with the unabated growth of mobile computing and other technologies, that means there are ever greater security challenges for businesses.

This is why McAfee has decided to focus on mobile platform protection of late, said Samenuk, especially in the third-generation, or 3G, cellular network market. That, and divesting its noncore businesses, have been his key areas of focus.

"We are in a position to do something in this world that can make a difference immediately," he told CNETAsia during a recent visit to Singapore. "You get audiences from all over the world who all want to talk about this area because it is their vital interest to keep their governments and businesses running."

The company recently concluded the sale of its Sniffer division, which provides network monitoring, to a group of investors. That was the last piece in McAfee's previously "convoluted" vision, he said.

McAfee, he stressed, will focus solely on security from now on. In a wide-ranging interview, Samenuk articulated more of his company's plans for the near future.

Q: How serious is the virus situation now?
A: Well, in the first quarter this year, we saw more attacks than all of 2003, and 2003 was the largest attack year in our history. And we are seeing the hacker move from just PC to everything that's tied to technology. And I've read that there are now attacks on Apple's iTunes. We are also seeing PDAs and 3G phones being attacked. And Internet phones are getting hit like crazy right now.

How worrying is the current trend of attacks and reinfection by bug variants?
It shows that hackers are trying different routes of attacks and becoming more aware. We just had a variant on Bagle two weeks ago on medium alert. What the hackers did is they took the original attacks and refined it to try different areas where they could infiltrate the customers' network. So we are seeing the hackers become much more aware of how they can make their attacks more effective, using variants of the original attack. This says to me that you better have blocking and antivirus capabilities everywhere, at the desktop, server and gateway, because one just doesn't cover it all.

But that's what antivirus vendors would say right? You want customers to buy more--

Do you want your business or government to go down because you didn't spend money protecting PDAs or 3G phones or servers? This is a bet-your-job environment.
What choice do users have? Do you want your business or government to go down because you didn't spend money protecting PDAs or 3G phones or servers? This is a bet-your-job environment. You will lose your job if you don't have comprehensive, layered security solutions. But that has not been the concern of CSOs and CIOs that I've talked to. They are getting the funds necessary to do that. You can see from our sales and other vendors' sales that organizations are spending more money every single year. I've seen the projections of the growth of 3G phones over the next few years, and even if those projections are only half right, this will be an enormous market.

So what is McAfee betting on?
Wireless will have a major thrust in all the new products that we do in the future. Our kids will not grow up in a wired, but a wireless environment. And that gives McAfee a whole new space to work with. Every three to five years a new dominant technology emerges and changes the industry. And wireless, in the form of 3G and PDA devices, will have a dramatic impact on our future.

What is the fundamental difference between wired and wireless protection?
It's a new architecture in many cases, in terms of what you need to protect. In the case of a 3G, Internet-enabled phone, the service provider has to make sure that it is an always-on and always-reliable environment. And in such an environment, the user doesn't have time to go out and buy the antivirus application. It has to be downloaded within a couple of seconds. So it is changing our thinking too about how we can deliver our solutions.

What is McAfee doing in the non-PC protection area?
In October this year, we will deliver security software protection for 3G phones. We started working with NTT DoCoMo in December 2001, so it's taken us three years. We will be the first company to deliver virus protection for 3G phones. This is a great opportunity for us.

Tell us more about this product.
There is going to be a little software agent that sits on the phone. It will constantly be getting updates from the host site, and it will give the latest signature files and updates to block the known attacks. The 3G phone is actually just another Internet-enabled device. And so you need a similar protection but we have to give it at a smaller size. And we have to cater for a very rapid adoption rate.

We will be the first company to deliver virus protection for 3G phones
The good thing is that the signature file will be very small, so it has a very small footprint. We were challenged by NTT DoCoMo to reduce the size, reduce the size, and reduce the size. Eventually, we will block attacks without signature files. It will be like our IntruShield line of appliances which blocks both known and unknown attacks. With unknown attacks, this can only be done using heuristics (development of programs that use pattern recognition, rather than those based on algorithms).

When will heuristics-based 3G phone antivirus protection appear?
We are looking at between 2005 and 2006.

How does the service provider get the antivirus application into the phone?
That's the million-dollar question: Whether service providers are going to give it as part of their service, or charge the consumer and offer a premium service...We are still working on that, but it really doesn't matter to us.

What's the cost, or should we say value, of phone protection to the service provider?
It depends on whether the service provider wants their operating environment available and reliable all the time so that they can keep on billing. And that's the whole game here because they want these phones to be constantly available. If their customers can't use the phones because of an attack, then they lose revenue.

Do you see PC-type viruses going to 3G devices?
No doubt, because it is just another device on the Internet. And you see what people do with 3G devices...They do stock quotes, e-mail, whatever. And they will be hit by PC viruses.

How big will the 3G phone protection market be?

You see what people do with 3G devices...They do stock quotes, e-mail, whatever. And they will be hit by PC viruses.
It will be enormous. I've seen the projections of the growth of 3G phones over the next few years, and even if those projections are only half right, this will be an enormous market. Just start by considering the fact that NTT DoCoMo has 39 million users in Japan today. And that's just a small fraction. We are seeing great interest from other 3G phone companies and service providers.

You are also working on protecting voice over IP?
Yes we are. And that's an enormous area. On my flight here from New York, I was reading a New York Times article, which reported that a lot of companies are experiencing disruptions for VoIP infrastructure because of viruses and attacks. So we are starting to see that that's the next big area for attack.

Is that surprising for you?
No. Again, it's Internet-enabled phones, so why wouldn't the same attacks affect the VoIP environment?

How has McAfee done in Asia?
Asia-Pacific is one of our fastest growing areas. We grew over 50 percent in McAfee in the second quarter in Asia-Pacific, compared to 22 percent worldwide in the same quarter. We don't give out growth for specific regions but we think Asia Pacific can grow faster than our overall business over the remainder of the year. Asia Pacific has been a key early adopter of our new technologies, and our new blocking appliances like IntruShield.