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Beyond the Hype: An Evaluation of Commercially Available Machine-Learning-Based Malware Detectors

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Digital Threats: Research and Practice
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There is a lack of scientific testing of commercially available malware detectors, especially those that boast accurate classification of never-before-seen (i.e., zero-day) files using machine learning (ML). Consequently, efficacy of malware detectors is opaque, inhibiting end users from making informed decisions and researchers from targeting gaps in current detectors. In this paper, we present a scientific evaluation of four prominent commercial malware detection tools to assist an organization with two primary questions: To what extent do ML-based tools accurately classify previously and never-before-seen files? Is purchasing a network-level malware detector worth the cost? To investigate, we tested each tool against 3,536 total files (2,554 or 72% malicious, 982 or 28% benign) of a variety of file types, including hundreds of malicious zero-days, polyglots, and APT-style files, delivered on multiple protocols. We present statistical results on detection time and accuracy, consider complementary analysis (using multiple tools together), and provide two novel applications of the recent cost-benefit evaluation procedure of Iannacone & Bridges. Although the ML-based tools are more effective at detecting zero-day files and executables, the signature-based tool might still be an overall better option. Both network-based tools provide substantial (simulated) savings when paired with either host tool, yet both show poor detection rates on protocols other than HTTP or SMTP. Our results show that all four tools have near-perfect precision but alarmingly low recall, especially on file types other than executables and office files—37% of malware, including all polyglot files, were undetected. Priorities for researchers and takeaways for end users are given. Code for future use of the cost model is provided.