The literal meaning of term heuristic is to learn or discover something for oneself. For the layperson, though, the subject of technology (and anything beneath its text and fancy graphics, for that matter) is a bit more than they’d care to learn about. They simply want their devices to work and be secure, and part of that is having an app that will not only alert them when something is wrong, but quickly fix it. A heuristic takes this into account, too: While it’s virtually impossible to get rid of every fault or questionable program, an approximate solution should, at minimum, keep their data and hardware safe.
One significant way an antivirus product achieves this is through Multi-Criteria Analysis (MCA). In essence, this rules-based approach draws from probability and statistical data that makes it quite effective in the detection of macro viruses and unknown malware. It works by attributing a score to the messages it checks on the basis of its matching criteria. The moment a file or program crosses an assigned threshold, it is flagged as ‘suspicious’ and handled accordingly.
It can be said that heuristic analysis is similar to human factor analysis in that it leverages the lessons it learns along the way. This, in turn, helps an antivirus program get progressively better at detecting new threats. The advantage here is speed, as the total number of computer viruses have increased exponentially. Without speed, any form of detection would be virtually ineffective.
The attack vectors used by hackers and malware designers are constantly evolving in speed and approach. The results are more sophisticated versions of their nefarious products that are at times difficult to detect—even with the filtering capabilities of heuristic analysis. Though filtering, in this capacity, refers to a ‘belief state’ based on historical data, virtualization and emulation techniques are typically added to help meet the onslaught of malware.
The totality of heuristic analysis can be compared to an agent who makes his way behind enemy lines. Using the intelligence he was able to gather, a myriad of technologies, rules and tricks can be used to develop a well-considered assumption about the nature of program files. Of course, there is always the chance of failure when attempting to detect and eradicate a virus. But this doesn’t make the process of intelligence gathering any less effective. No method is more capable of combating malware than heuristic analysis: It’s scanning and detection properties are arguably the front-line weapon of defense.
Given the number of malware online, and cybercriminals who deploy them from unmarked locations, its a wonder we’ve managed to keep mayhem from swallowing our digital lives. Some of us take direct action, while others rely on technology to protect them from malicious intent. No antivirus is foolproof, but heuristic analysis and techniques have certainly made these products more effective, and have formed the vanguard of our online defense.