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,

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.

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Don’t ruin our trust in the update process!

We can see signs of a disturbing trend. Nowadays there is a built-in update process in almost every software product, and the automatic updates are essential for our devices’ security. The main driver to implement them was to be able to reach out quickly when vulnerabilities are discovered. And most users got the message. We understand the need for updates and let them be installed promptly. This is great from security point of view. So I’m very sad to see increasing misuse of users’ trust in the updates. Apple is making headlines right now with the “Error 53 scandal”. In short, upgrading to iOS 9 may brick your device, that is render it totally useless, if the new system detects that an unauthorized repair has been performed. The official reason is that Apple wants to protect the user’s data against attacks involving tampering with the device. The new functionality does however smell to high heaven. Apple has already a bad reputation for keeping its ecosystem closed and tightly managed, and this incident just feeds that reputation. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a move like this also benefits authorized Apple service companies over unauthorized. Bashing Windows 10 is also popular right now. I’m not going into all the security and privacy issues here. But I think the way Microsoft is pushing out Windows 10 to users of previous versions is disturbing. Yes, the automatically distributed upgrade is convenient, if you want to upgrade. And as said, upgrading is usually good from security point of view. But people may have tons of valid reasons to postpone the upgrade, and this is where things get nasty. Several gigabytes are downloaded anyway and use up disk space in vain. Language in the upgrade dialog suggests you have to upgrade. And it starts all over even if you decline, clean up and disable the updates. Even worse, now the upgrade may even start automatically without your consent! People are raging over these incidents because they cause major inconvenience and interferes with your ability to use a product you have purchased. But another at least equally severe side effect is that every case like this undermines peoples’ trust in update services. I bet people with a bricked iPhone will be hesitant to install new versions of iOS in the future. And my opinion about Microsoft’s update service has definitively changed while defending a touch-screen computer with Windows 8.1 from the upgrade. Yes, I have tried Windows 10 on it. No, it didn’t work properly so I had to roll back to 8.1. So to conclude. Rapid updates are more important than ever. Therefore it is very sad to see companies misuse the update channels to roll out features and versions that are designed mainly to boost their own business. The outcome may be that people to a larger extent decline updates or try to block update systems that can’t be disabled. Permanent damage has been caused in that case.   Micke   PS. There’s some good news for people who want to stay on their previous Windows versions. There is a registry setting that can be used to prevent the upgrade. See MS Knowledge Base Article 3080351 for more details.     Image by Nick Hubbard

February 11, 2016
Safer Internet Day

What are your kids doing for Safer Internet Day?

Today is Safer Internet Day – a day to talk about what kind of place the Internet is becoming for kids, and what people can do to make it a safe place for kids and teens to enjoy. We talk a lot about various online threats on this blog. After all, we’re a cyber security company, and it’s our job to secure devices and networks to keep people protected from more than just malware. But protecting kids and protecting adults are different ballparks. Kids have different needs, and as F-Secure Researcher Mikael Albrecht has pointed out, this isn’t always recognized by software developers or device manufacturers. So how does this actually impact kids? Well, it means parents can’t count on the devices and services kids use to be completely age appropriate. Or completely safe. Social media is a perfect example. Micke has written in the past that social media is basically designed for adults, making any sort of child protection features more of an afterthought than a focus. Things like age restrictions are easy for kids to work around. So it’s not difficult for kids to hop on Facebook or Twitter and start social networking, just like their parents or older siblings. But these services aren't designed for kids to connect with adults. So where does that leave parents? Parental controls are great tools that parents can use to monitor, and to a certain extent, limit what kids can do online. But they’re not perfect. Particularly considering the popularity of mobile devices amongst kids. Regulating content on desktop browsers and mobile apps are two different things, and while there are a lot of benefits to using mobile apps instead of web browsers, it does make using special software to regulate content much more difficult. The answer to challenges like these is the less technical approach – talking to kids. There’s some great tips for parents on F-Secure’s Digital Parenting web page, with talking points, guidelines, and potential risks that parents should learn more about. That might seem like a bit of a challenge to parents. F-Secure’s Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen has pointed out that today’s kids have never experienced a world without the Internet. It’s as common as electricity for them. But the nice thing about this approach is that parents can do this just by spending time with kids and learning about the things they like to do online. So if you don’t know what your kids are up to this Safer Internet Day, why not enjoy the day with your kids (or niece/nephew, or even a kid you might be babysitting) by talking over what they like to do online, and how they can enjoy doing it safely.

February 9, 2016
Virdem malware, old viruses, Malware Museum

Step back in time to when hackers were just having fun

What's so fun about old malware? In just four days more than a hundred thousand people have visited The Malware Museum -- an online repository of classic malware, mostly viruses, that infected home computers in the 1980s and 90s. Working with archivist Jason Scott, Mikko Hyppönen -- our Chief Research Officer -- put together 78 examples finest/worst examples of old-school malware that includes emulations of the infections with the destructive elements removed so you can enjoy them safely. "I only chose interesting viruses," Mikko told BBC News. The result is "nerdy nostalgia," says PC Magazine's Stephanie Mlot. The exhibits feature clunky ASCII graphics, pot references and obscure allusions to Lord of the Rings. While an early ancestor of ransomware like Casino was willing to ruin your files and call you an "a**hole," it wasn't trying to extort any cash out of you. That's because the creators of these early forms of digital vandalism were amateurs in the truest sense of the world. They did it for the love of mayhem. We long for the days of "happy hackers," as Mikko calls them, because the malware landscape today is so ominous. "Most of the malware we analyze today is coming from organized criminal groups... and intelligence agencies," Mikko explained. To keep the memories of the good old days alive, we're going to make t-shirts celebrating some classic malware. And we'd like you to choose which viruses we should commemorate. CRASH V SIGN FLAME CASINO PHANTOM (Image via @danooct1) [polldaddy poll=9302985] If you appreciate the Museum, Mikko asks that you contribute to the Internet Archive. You can learn more about Malware from Mikko's Malware Hall of Fame. Cheers, Sandra

February 8, 2016