Virtualization as security

Virtual computer, real security

There are many ways to keep your computer secure. Your own behavior affects it a lot and we at F-Secure are happy to help protecting you with our products. But there are also many tools that can improve your security even if that wasn’t their initial purpose. Melissa and Sean described how you can use separate browsers to lower the risk for human errors. Virtualization is another technology that can improve security as a side effect. It’s a like the separate browsers idea, but takes it a lot further. Read on to learn more.

Virtualization in computing means to simulate something with software. What we talk about here is to create a whole virtual computer inside a real computer. It’s complex under the hood, but there are luckily easy products that can be used by almost anyone. This technology is by the way used extensively in the software industry. Huge number of virtual computers can be used to process data or test software. A large portion of the Internet is also provided by virtual servers.

But how can this improve my security? Most malware is made for profit and interfering with your on-line banking is a common payload. But what if you run your on-line banking on a separate computer? Buying another machine costs money and consumes space, but that can be solved by using a virtual computer instead. That virtual machine would only be used for banking, nothing else. A malware infection could happen if your guard is down and you open a malicious file in the mail. Or surf to a site witch is infected with a drive-by download. Both cases could infect your real computer, but the malware can’t see what you are doing with the bank inside the virtual machine. One could also use the opposite strategy. Use a virtual machine when doing something risky, like looking for downloads on shady servers. A previously made snapshot can easily be restored if something bad hits the virtual machine.

An additional benefit is that this gives you an excellent opportunity to play around with different operating systems. Install Linux/Windows/OS X just to become familiar with them. Do you have some hardware which driver won’t work in your new machine? No problem, install a virtual machine with an older operating system.

OK, sounds like a good idea. But can I do it? Here’s what it takes.

  1. You need a fairly new and powerful computer. Especially the amount of RAM memory is critical. You are usually OK with 8 GB, but more is desirable. This is probably a bad idea if you have less. (This depends a lot on what operating system you are running and what you want to run in the virtual machines.)
  2. You need to download and install a virtualization product. Two good alternatives are VirtualBox by Oracle (free) and VMWare Player by VMWare (free for personal use).
  3. You need to have an installation media for the operating system you want to run in the virtual machine. This is easy for Linux as you can download the installer freely from the net. Hint: Google: download linux.
  4. You need to know how to install an operating system. This is not as nerdy as it sounds. Modern operating systems have easy installers that most people are able to use. And don’t worry if you make a mistake. It’s just a virtual machine and you can go back to the beginning at any time without losing anything (except some time).

I’m not going to provide detailed instructions for this. That depends too much on which virtualization product and operating system you use. And it would beside that be like reinventing the wheel. You will find plenty of step-by-step instructions by Googling for what you want to do, for example “install Linux in VirtualBox”.

But for your convenience, here’s an overview of the process.

  1. Select one of the virtualization products and ensure that your computer meets its system requirements.
  2. Download and install the virtualization product.
  3. Ensure that you have an installation media for the operating system you want to use and any keycodes etc. that may be needed during installation. The media can be a physical disk or USB-memory, or a disk stored as an image file. The virtualization software can mount disk image files as a device in the virtual machine and there’s no need to burn a disk for this purpose.
  4. Now follow the instructions you found on the net. They will help you create the virtual machine, mount the installation media in it and go through the operating system installation.
  5. After this you can use the virtualization product’s console to start the virtual machine when needed. It shows up full-screen or in a window depending on the settings. Inside it you can do what you want, install programs surf the net, etc.
  6. For the banking virtual computer you just need to install the browser of your choice, make sure it’s updated and patched and make your bank the home page. Don’t install anything else unless it really is needed for the banking connection and don’t use this virtual machine for anything else.
  7. You can create multiple virtual machines, but be careful if you try to run them at once. Your computer may not have what it takes. As said, RAM memory is the critical resource here.

Safe surfing,
Micke

Edited to add: It is of course a good habit to exercise the same basic security measurements inside virtual machines as in real computers. Turn on the operating system’s update function, install your anti-virus program and make sure your browser is kept up to date. Doing just banking with the virtual machine reduces the risk a lot, but this is good advice even in that case. And needless to say, the virtual machine’s armor is essential if you use it for high-risk tasks. Thanks Dima for providing feedback.

More posts from this topic

Online Surfing in Different Countries

POLL: What country do you want to use for your online surfing?

Online surfing has been around for a while now, and it keeps getting better as technology continues to improve. Websites are better, responsive to different devices, more interactive, and feature a more diverse range of content. All in all, online surfing has managed to stay cool for a very long time. In fact, during a recent interview, Mikko Hypponen specified online surfing as the thing that he’d miss the most if the Internet were to suddenly disappear. The Internet may not suddenly disappear tomorrow, but it is in danger of slowly eroding. While technologies have been steadily improving what people can see and do online, other interests have been trying to develop new ways to regulate and control people’s behavior. Questions about what you can see and do online used to face technical constraints, but now these are transitioning to issues about what other people want you to see and do. Noted anthropologist and author David Graeber recently remarked in an interview with the Guardian that control has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even see it. Geo-blocking is a regulative measure that seems to confirm Graeber’s views. PC Magazine concisely defines it as the practice of preventing people from accessing web content based on where they are (determined by their IP address). Geo-blocking and other types of regional restrictions are used by both companies and governments, and for a variety of purposes (for example, enforcing copyright regimes, running regional sales promotions, censorship, etc.). Freedome is a user-friendly VPN that gives people a way to re-assert control over what they can see and do online. It encrypts communications, disables tracking software, and protects people from malware. It basically gives people the kind of protection they need to surf the web while staying safe from the more prominent forms of digital threats. It also helps people circumvent geo-blocking by letting them choose different “virtual locations”. Virtual locations let people choose where they want to appear to be when they’re surfing online. So if a user selects Canada as their location, the websites they visit will think they are located in Canada. If they select Japan, websites will think they’re in Japan. I’m sure you get the idea. Choosing different virtual locations lets web surfers bypass these geo-blocks so that their access to content remains unrestricted. They can watch YouTube videos reserved for American audiences, access Facebook or Twitter when vacationing in a country that blocks those services, and avoid other measures that attempt to prevent them from enjoying their digital freedom. Freedome recently added Belgium and Poland as new choices, giving Freedome users a total of 17 different places to surf from. But the list needs to keep expanding to keep the fight for digital freedom going, so the Freedome team wants to know: where do you want to do your online surfing? [polldaddy poll=8754876] [Image by Sari Choch-Be | Flickr ]

Mar 27, 2015
BY 
MikkotalksCeBit

5 things you need to know about securing our future

"Securing the future" is a huge topic, but our Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen narrowed it down to the two most important issues is his recent keynote address at the CeBIT conference. Watch the whole thing for a Matrix-like immersion into the two greatest needs for a brighter future -- security and privacy. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFoOvpaZvdM] To get started here are some quick takeaways from Mikko's insights into data privacy and data security in a threat landscape where everyone is being watched, everything is getting connected and anything that can make criminals money will be attacked. 1. Criminals are using the affiliate model. About a month ago, one of the guys running CTB Locker -- ransomware that infects your PC to hold your files until you pay to release them in bitcoin -- did a reddit AMA to explain how he makes around $300,000 with the scam. After a bit of questioning, the poster revealed that he isn't CTB's author but an affiliate who simply pays for access to a trojan and an exploit-kid created by a Russian gang. "Why are they operating with an affiliate model?" Mikko asked. Because now the authors are most likely not breaking the law. In the over 250,000 samples F-Secure Labs processes a day, our analysts have seen similar Affiliate models used with the largest banking trojans and GameOver ZeuS, which he notes are also coming from Russia. No wonder online crime is the most profitable IT business. 2. "Smart" means exploitable. When you think of the word "smart" -- as in smart tv, smartphone, smart watch, smart car -- Mikko suggests you think of the word exploitable, as it is a target for online criminals. Why would emerging Internet of Things (IoT) be a target? Think of the motives, he says. Money, of course. You don't need to worry about your smart refrigerator being hacked until there's a way to make money off it. How might the IoT become a profit center? Imagine, he suggests, if a criminal hacked your car and wouldn't let you start it until you pay a ransom. We haven't seen this yet -- but if it can be done, it will. 3. Criminals want your computer power. Even if criminals can't get you to pay a ransom, they may still want into your PC, watch, fridge or watch for the computing power. The denial of service attack against Xbox Live and Playstation Netwokr last Christmas, for instance likely employed a botnet that included mobile devices. IoT devices have already been hijacked to mine for cypto-currencies that could be converted to Bitcoin then dollars or "even more stupidly into Rubbles." 4. If we want to solve the problems of security, we have to build security into devices. Knowing that almost everything will be able to connect to the internet requires better collaboration between security vendors and manufacturers. Mikko worries that companies that have never had to worry about security -- like a toaster manufacturer, for instance -- are now getting into IoT game. And given that the cheapest devices will sell the best, they won't invest in proper design. 5. Governments are a threat to our privacy. The success of the internet has let to governments increasingly using it as a tool of surveillance. What concerns Mikko most is the idea of "collecting it all." As Glenn Glenwald and Edward Snowden pointed out at CeBIT the day before Mikko, governments seem to be collecting everything -- communication, location data -- on everyone, even if you are not a person of interest, just in case. Who knows how that information may be used in a decade from now given that we all have something to hide? Cheers, Sandra  

Mar 23, 2015
freedome, screenshot, freedome, VPN, best privacy

The Freedome approach to privacy

We were recently asked a series of questions about how Freedome protects private data by TorrentFreak.com. Since we believe transparency and encryption are keys to online freedom, we wanted to share our answers that explain how we try to make the best privacy app possible. 1. Do you keep ANY logs which would allow you to match an IP-address and a time stamp to a user of your service? If so, exactly what information do you hold and for how long? We do not keep any such logs. If ever required by law under a jurisdiction, we would implement such a system, but only where applicable and keeping storage time to the minimum required by law of that respective jurisdiction. Note also that no registration is required to use our service, so any log information would generally map to an anonymous, random user ID (UUID) and the user’s public IP address. 2. Under what jurisdiction(s) does your company operate? Freedome is a service provided from Finland by a Finnish company, and manufactured and provided in compliance with applicable Finnish laws. 3. What tools are used to monitor and mitigate abuse of your service? We have proprietary tools for fully automated traffic pattern analysis, including some DPI for the purpose of limiting peer-to-peer traffic on some gateway sites. Should we detect something that is not in line with our acceptable use policy, we can rate limit traffic from a device, or block a device from accessing the VPN service. All of this is automated and happens locally on the VPN gateway. 4. Do you use any external email providers (e.g. Google Apps) or support tools ( e.g Live support, Zendesk) that hold information provided by users? We do not use any external email providers, but our users can, for example, sign up for beta programs with their email address and send us feedback by email. The email addresses are used only to communicate things like product availability. In the future, paying customers can also use our support services and tools such as chat. In those cases, we do hold information that customers provide us voluntarily. This information is incident based (connected to the support request) and is not connected to any other data (e.g. customer information, marketing, licensing, purchase or any Freedome data). This data is purely used for managing and solving support cases. 5. In the event you receive a DMCA takedown notice or European equivalent, how are these handled? There is no content in the service to be taken down. Freedome is a data pipeline and does not obtain direct financial benefit from user content accessed while using the service. While some of the other liability exclusions of DMCA (/ its European equivalent) apply, the takedown process itself is not really applicable to (this) VPN service. 6. What steps are taken when a valid court order requires your company to identify an active user of your service? Has this ever happened? The law enforcement data requests can effectively be done directly only to F-Secure Corporation in Finland. If a non-Finnish authority wants to request such data from F-Secure, the request will be done by foreign authorities directly to Finnish police or via Interpol in accordance to procedures set out in international conventions. To date, this has never happened for the Freedome Service. 7. Does your company have a warrant canary or a similar solution to alert customers to gag orders? We do not have a warrant canary system in place. Instead, Freedome is built to store as little data as possible. Since a warrant canary would be typically triggered by a law enforcement request on individual user, they are more reflective on the size of the customer base and how interesting the data in the service is from a law enforcement perspective. They are a good, inventive barometer but do not really measure the risk re: specific user’s data. 8. Is BitTorrent and other file-sharing traffic allowed on all servers? If not, why? BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer file sharing is rate limited / blocked on some gateway servers due to acceptable use policies of our network providers. Some providers are not pleased with a high volume of DMCA takedown requests. We use multiple providers (see Question #12) and these blocks are not in place on all the servers. 9. Which payment systems do you use and how are these linked to individual user accounts? There are multiple options. The most anonymous way to purchase is by buying a voucher code in a retail store. If you pay in cash, the store will not know who you are. You then enter the anonymous voucher code in the Freedome application, and we will then confirm from our database that it is a valid voucher which we have given for sale to one of our retail channels. The retail store does not pass any information to us besides the aggregate number of sold vouchers, so even if you paid by a credit card, we do not get any information about the individual payment. For in-app (e.g., Apple App Store, Google play) purchases you in most cases do need to provide your details but we actually never receive those, we get just an anonymous receipt. The major app stores do not give any contact information about end users to any application vendors. When a purchase is made through our own e-store, the payment and order processing is handled by our online reseller, cleverbridge AG, in Germany. Our partner collects payment information together with name, email, address, etc. and does store these, but in a separate system from Freedome. In this case we have a record who have bought Freedome licenses but pointing a person to any usage of Freedome is intentionally difficult and against our policies. We also don’t have any actual usage log and therefore could not point to one anyway. 10. What is the most secure VPN connection and encryption algorithm you would recommend to your users? Do you provide tools such as “kill switches” if a connection drops and DNS leak protection? Our application does not provide user selectable encryption algorithms. Servers and clients are authenticated using X.509 certificates with 2048-bit RSA keys and SHA-256 signatures. iOS clients use IPSEC with AES-128 encryption. Other clients (Android, Windows, OS X) use OpenVPN with AES-128 encryption. Perfect Forward Secrecy is enabled (Diffie-Hellman key exchange). We provide DNS leak protection by default, and we also provide IPv6 over the VPN so that IPv6 traffic will not bypass the VPN. Kill switches are not available. The iOS IPSEC client does not allow traffic to flow unless the VPN is connected, or if the VPN is explicitly turned off by the user. The Android app, in “Protection ON” state keeps capturing internet traffic even if network or VPN connection drops, thus there is no traffic or DNS leaks during connection drops. If the Freedome application process gets restarted by the Android system, there is a moment where traffic could theoretically leak outside the VPN. Device startup Android 4.x requires user’s consent before it allows a VPN app to start capturing traffic; until that traffic may theoretically leak. (Android 5 changes this, as it does not forget user’s consent at device reboot.) 11. Do you use your own DNS servers? (if not, which servers do you use?) We do have our own DNS servers. 12. Do you have physical control over your VPN servers and network or are they outsourced and hosted by a third party (if so, which ones)? Where are your servers located? In most locations we utilize shared hardware operated by specialized hosting vendors, but we also have our own dedicated hardware at some locations. Providers vary from country to country and over time. In some countries we also use multiple providers at the same time for improved redundancy. An example provider would be Softlayer, an IBM company whom we use in multiple locations.

Mar 18, 2015
BY