I'm wondering if an antimalware vendor has ever whitelisted (or otherwise failed to detect) a piece of malware because the author/sponsor either paid them, threatened them, or legislated against them.
Yes - this example is pretty old, but Magic Lantern was a spyware program written by the FBI that some antivirus vendors initially decided to whitelist.
The public disclosure of the existence of Magic Lantern sparked a debate as to whether anti-virus companies could or should detect the FBI's keystroke logger.
Concerns include uncertainties about Magic Lantern's full potential and whether hackers could subvert it for purposes outside the jurisdiction of the law.
Bridis reported that Network Associates (maker of McAfee anti-virus products), had contacted the FBI following the press reports about Magic Lantern to ensure their anti-virus software would not detect the program. Network Associates issued a denial, fueling speculation as to which anti-virus products might or might not detect government trojans.
CNET News has surveyed 13 security companies about their contacts with and level of cooperation with law enforcement authorities.
Graham Cluley, a technology consultant from Sophos, said "We have no way of knowing if it was written by the FBI, and even if we did, we wouldn’t know whether it was being used by the FBI or if it had been commandeered by a third party". Another reaction from this came from Marc Maiffret, chief technology officer and cofounder of eEye Digital Security who states: "Our customers are paying us for a service, to protect them from all forms of malicious code. It is not up to us to do law enforcement's job for them so we do not, and will not, make any exceptions for law enforcement malware or other tools."
When asked if Magic Lantern would need a court order to deploy, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson would not comment, stating: "Like all technology projects or tools deployed by the FBI it would be used pursuant to the appropriate legal process." Proponents of Magic Lantern argue the technology would allow law enforcement to efficiently and quickly decrypt messages protected by encryption schemes. Implementing Magic Lantern does not require physical access to a suspect's computer, unlike Carnivore, a predecessor to Magic Lantern, since physical access to a computer would require a court order.
Following the media coverage of Magic Lantern, F-Secure (a Finnish anti-virus company), announced their policy on detecting government spying programs: "F-Secure Corporation would like to make known that we will not leave such backdoors to our F-Secure Anti-Virus products, regardless of the source of such tools. We have to draw a line with every sample we get regarding whether to detect it or not. This decision-making is influenced only by technical factors, and nothing else, but within the applicable laws and regulations, in our case meaning EU laws.
We will also be adding detection of any program we see that might be used for terrorist activity or to benefit organized crime. We would like to state this for the record, as we have received queries regarding whether we would have the guts to detect something obviously made by a known violent mafia or terrorist organization. Yes we would."