Two years ago, GreenBorder, one of the early "sandbox" browsers, received mighty applause from Wall Street Journal tech guru Walt Mossberg. The sandbox browser -- basically, a browser running in a virtual container -- promised to keep nasty code from spilling into a computer's operating system and wreaking havoc.
The InfoWorld Test Center showed a year earlier that such sandbox technology didn’t really work, at least not then. This year, to see if anything had changed, it tested a new version of this technology, in the form of Check Point’s ZoneAlarm ForceField. Same result: it didn't do the job. "Within less than a minute, by clicking only my third test malicious Web site link, my test system was silently compromised without so much as a chirp out of ForceField," wrote InfoWorld's security guru Roger Grimes.
The problem, then and now, is the sandbox wall remained permeable, so Trojans and other forms of malware can slip through the virtual sandbox into your desktop.
Grimes believes the technology approach of the sandbox browser, which he calls virtual red-green computing because the browser is the unsafe red zone and the operating system is the safe green zone, is fundamentally flawed -- and so he debunks the entire product category. Virtual red-green computing is the decades-old practice of creating separate safe and unsafe zones on a computer using virtualization techniques.
Sandbox browsers are largely aimed at consumers and small businesses. Products include ForceField (which claims to protect more than 60 million PCs), Sandboxie, Trusteer, and Safecentral.com. (Google bought GreenBorder a year ago, and it seems to have since disappeared as a product.)
Grimes' gripe: blurring red and green lines
In Grimes' ForceField test, for example, he visited known malicious Web sites with an unpatched Windows XP computer running ForceField and, again, with a fully patched computer sans ForceField. He did this to single out ForceField's capabilities. The fully patched computer foiled all attacks, whereas the non-patched computer with ForceField was breached on the third Web site Grimes visited.