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.

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BYOD

Why Bring your own Device (BYOD)?

Do you ever use your personal phone to make work related calls? Or send work related e-mails? Maybe you even use it to work on Google Docs, or access company files remotely? Doing these things basically means you’re implementing a BYOD policy at your work, whether they know it or not. BYOD – that’s bring your own device – isn’t really a new trend, but it is one that’s becoming more widespread. Statistics from TrackVia suggest that younger generations are embracing BYOD on a massive scale, with nearly 70% of surveyed Millennials admitting that they use their own devices and software, regardless of their employer’s policies on the matter. This is essentially pressuring employers to accept the trend, as the alternative could mean imposing security restrictions that limit how people go about their work. Consequently, Gartner predicts that 38% of businesses will stop providing employees with devices by 2016. It kind of seems like workers are enforcing the trend, and not businesses. But it’s happening because it’s so much easier to work with phones, tablets, and computers that you understand and enjoy. Work becomes easier, productivity goes up, life becomes more satisfying, etc. This might sound like an exaggeration, and maybe it is a little bit. BYOD won’t solve all of life’s problems, but it really takes advantage of the flexibility modern technology offers. And that’s what mobility should be about, and that’s what businesses are missing out on when they anchor people to a specific device. BYOD promotes a more “organic” aspect of technology in that it’s something people have already invested in and want to use, not something that’s being forced upon them. But of course, there are complications. Recent research confirms that many of these same devices have already had security issues. It’s great to enjoy the benefits of using your own phone or tablet for sending company e-mails, but what happens when things go wrong? You might be turning heads at work by getting work done faster and more efficient, but don’t expect this to continue if you happen to download some malicious software that infiltrates your company’s networks. You’re not alone if you want to use your own phone, tablet, or computer for work. And you’re not even alone if you do this without telling your boss. But there’s really no reason not to try and protect yourself first. You can use security software to reduce the risk of data breaches or malicious infections harming your employer. And there’s even a business oriented version of F-Secure's popular Freedome VPN called Freedome for Business that can actually give you additional forms of protection, and can help your company manage an entire fleet of BYOD and company-owned devices. It’s worth bringing these concerns to an employer if you find yourself using your own devices at the office. After all, statistics prove that you’re not alone in your concerns, and your employer will most likely have to address the issue sooner rather than later if they want the company to use technology wisely.  

Apr 17, 2015
BY 
sign license

POLL – How should we deal with harmful license terms?

We blogged last week, once again, about the fact that people fail to read the license terms they approve when installing software. That post was inspired by a Chrome extension that monetized by collecting and selling data about users’ surfing behavior. People found out about this, got mad and called it spyware. Even if the data collection was documented in the privacy policy, and they technically had approved it. But this case is not really the point, it’s just an example of a very common business model on the Internet. The real point is what we should think about this business model. We have been used to free software and services on the net, and there are two major reasons for that. Initially the net was a playground for nerds and almost all services and programs were developed on a hobby or academic basis. The nerds were happy to give them away and all others were happy to get them for free. But businesses run into a problem when they tried to enter the net. There was no reliable payment method. This created the need for compensation models without money. The net of today is to a significant part powered by these moneyless business models. Products using them are often called free, which is incorrect as there usually is some kind of compensation involved. Nowadays we have money-based payment models too, but both our desire to get stuff for free and the moneyless models are still going strong. So what do these moneyless models really mean? Exposing the user to advertising is the best known example. This is a pretty open and honest model. Advertising can’t be hidden as the whole point is to make you see it. But it gets complicated when we start talking targeted advertising. Then someone need to know who you are and what you like, to be able to show you relevant ads. This is where it becomes a privacy issue. Ordinary users have no way to verify what data is collected about them and how it is used. Heck, often they don’t even know under what legislation it is stored and if the vendor respects privacy laws at all. Is this legal? Basically yes. Anyone is free to make agreements that involve submitting private data. But these scenarios can still be problematic in several ways. They may be in conflict with national consumer protection and privacy laws, but the most common complaint is that they aren’t fair. It’s practically impossible for ordinary users to read and understand many pages of legalese for every installed app. And some vendors utilize this by hiding the shady parts of the agreement deep into the mumbo jumbo. This creates a situation where the agreement may give significant rights to the vendor, which the users is totally unaware of. App permissions is nice development that attempts to tackle this problem. Modern operating systems for mobile devices require that apps are granted access to the resources they need. This enables the system to know more about what the app is up to and inform the user. But these rights are just becoming a slightly more advanced version of the license terms. People accept them without thinking about what they mean. This may be legal, but is it right? Personally I think the situation isn’t sustainable and something need to be done. But what? There are several ways to see this problem. What do you think is the best option?   [polldaddy poll=8801974]   The good news is however that you can avoid this problem. You can select to steer clear of “free” offerings and prefer software and services you pay money for. Their business model is simple and transparent, you get stuff and the vendor get money. These vendors do not need to hide scary clauses deep in the agreement document and can instead publish privacy principles like this.   Safe surfing, Micke     Photo by Orin Zebest at Flickr

Apr 15, 2015
BY 
webpage screenshot TOS

Sad figures about how many read the license terms

Do you remember our stunt in London where we offered free WiFi against getting your firstborn child? No, we have not collected any kids yet. But it sure was a nice demonstration of how careless we have become with user terms of software and service. It has been said that “Yes, I have read then license agreement” is the world’s biggest lie. Spot on! This was proven once again by a recent case where a Chrome extension was dragged into the spotlight accused of spying on users. Let’s first check the background. The “Webpage Screenshot” extension, which has been pulled from the Chrome Web Store, enabled users to conveniently take screenshots of web page content. It was a very popular extension with over 1,2 million users and tons of good reviews. But the problem is that the vendor seemed to get revenues by uploading user behavior, mainly visited web links, and monetizing on that data. The data upload was not very visible in the description, but the extension’s privacy policy did mention it. So the extension seemed to be acting according to what had been documented in the policy. Some people were upset and felt that they had been spied on. They installed the extension and had no clue that a screenshot utility would upload behavior data. And I can certainly understand why. But on the other hand, they did approve the user terms and conditions when installing. So they have technically given their approval to the data collection. Did the Webpage Screenshot users know what they signed up for? Let’s find out. It had 1 224 811 users when I collected this data. The question is how many of them had read the terms. You can pause here and think about it if you want to guess. The right answer follows below.   [caption id="attachment_8032" align="aligncenter" width="681"] Trying to access Webpage Screenshot gave an error in Chrome Web Store on April 7th 2015.[/caption]   The privacy policy was provided as a shortened URL which makes it possible to check its statistics. The link had been opened 146 times during the whole lifetime of the extension, slightly less than a year. Yes, only 146 times for over 1,2 million users! This means that only 0,012 % clicked the link! And the number of users who read all the way down to the data collection paragraph is even smaller. At least 99,988 % installed without reading the terms. So these figures support the claim that “I have read the terms” is the biggest lie. But they also show that “nobody reads the terms” is slightly incorrect.   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. Does F-Secure block this kind of programs? Typically no. They are usually not technically harmful, the user has installed them deliberately and we can’t really know what the user expects them to do. Or not to do. So this is not really a malware problem, it’s a fundamental problem in the business models of Internet.   Images: Screenshots from the Webpage Screenshot homepage and Chrome Web Store    

Apr 8, 2015
BY