Test Center: Sandbox security versus the evil Web

Five products strive to trap drive-by downloads and other threats in a virtual Web browsing space, with mixed results

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After the initial licensed-based install, Prevx did a scan of some of the critical system components and checked for program updates. Prevx has the best user interface in this roundup review (see Figure 1). There wasn't a part of it I did not like. It looks good, displays what the user needs when required to make a decision, and hides when it is not in play. There are three operation modes: ABC, which is the default for beginners, and two expert modes.

When the user surfs to a malicious Web site, Prevx notes any system modifications it detects while the related files are identified and compared to a local database or sent to the larger community-based database. If identified as malware (see Figure 2), the malicious programs and system modifications are removed and the system rebooted. Suspicious programs are placed in "jail" (see Figure 3), where the user can restore or tell Prevx to quarantine or delete. Cleaning always results in a mandatory reboot, followed by an additional rescanning of critical areas and an uploading of any found changes to the community database. I especially liked this feature because it can find modifications missed on the first pass. Nice touch.

Sadly, Prevx didn't always keep my system clean. On just the fifth malware Web site, a password-stealing Trojan was able to infect the test system. Prevx had noted system changes and uploaded multiple files to the community database, but it completely missed one of the Trojan files, even after the reboot and second scan (see the program called SSUUDL in Figure 4, Figure 5, and Figure 6). In further testing on the same site, Prevx removed every infectious file nearly all of the time, but not every time. And although it detected and prevented the XP Antivirus malware program, it did not stop the Adobe Flash clipboard hijack. If Prevx could improve its accuracy, it would easily be the best product in this review.

SafeCentral 4.0
Although Authentium's SafeCentral attempts to prevent keyloggers, screenscraping software, and malware from silently exploiting systems from Firefox browser sessions, it is most proud of its ability to prevent DNS and Web site spoofing for its 15,000 registered partner Web sites. The SafeCentral Portal site list includes thousands of commonly used banking, financial, and other popular Web sites and will prevent many phishing attacks. This is an opt-in feature, forcing the user to access sites from the SafeCentral Portal in order to ensure site authenticity. If your Web site is not listed or if you are socially engineered into visiting a bogus Web site without going through the portal, you will not get the protection of SafeCentral's redirection.

[ View the companion video, "SafeCentral vs. the Adobe Flash clipboard hijack." Download the QuickTime version. ]

After you install SafeCentral, which requires a multistep process more complicated than its competitors, it loads a custom version of Firefox and modifies the toolbar in Internet Explorer, if it finds Internet Explorer on your system. Various "elements" are installed to secure and protect the desktop from the custom version of the Firefox browser and vice-versa.

When the user is in a secure Firefox browser session, the rest of the system is dimmed (see Figure 1) and interaction is restricted in significant ways. If you click any program or desktop area outside of the browser, the secure browser session is paused and dimmed. Every switch between the protected browser session and the desktop took an extra click and often caused slightly uncomfortable latency. It reminded me of Microsoft Windows Vista's "secure desktop" feature that accompanies User Account Control (UAC) protection, except that Microsoft's secure desktop provides significantly more separation and security.

In extensive testing, SafeCentral did not allow a single silent install in Firefox, except for the Adobe Flash clipboard hijack, which every other product missed as well. That's about the only good point I could give this product, and one that would be matched by a fully patched browser as well. In my testing, SafeCentral permitted hundreds of malware downloads, if the site "fooled" the user into downloading and running the program. At no time did SafeCentral stop any malware download initiated by the user, or prevent the subsequent system modification, or ever warn the user of the impending potential damage. For example, Figure 2 shows a fake MSN.com site requesting to install an update to the Adobe Flash Player.

Protection was worse for Internet Explorer. Even though SafeCentral modified the toolbar and offered an indication of alert messages, it allowed nearly every silent malware install I threw at it, without so much as a peep. Clicking the SafeCentral toolbar icon (with Internet Explorer) simply launches the further secured version of the Firefox browser, which doesn't help when visiting the millions of Web sites that require Internet Explorer. Overall, I saw no advantage to using SafeCentral with Internet Explorer and questionable value with Firefox. The strength of this product lies with its DNS and anti-phishing protection. Those who want protection against browser threats should look elsewhere.

Sandboxie 3.28
Sandboxie is a superquick download (421K) and an easy install, supporting Windows 2000 and later Microsoft operating systems. It can be used to provide sandboxed protection (for files, disk devices, registry keys, processes, threads, driver objects, named pipes, mailbox objects, events, mutexs, semaphores, sections, and LPC ports) while running any program, including any Internet browser, command prompts, and Windows Explorer. It has a multitude of configuration options and a good interface that is directed more toward technical end-users.

Sandboxie offers many runtime and configuration choices over two main views: Programs (Figure 1) and Files and Folders (Figure 2). Both figures show Sandboxie running with active malware. At any point, the user can choose to terminate sandboxed programs and delete or restore the involved objects.

[ View the companion videos, "Sandboxie sandbox under attack," "Sandboxing programs in Sandboxie," and "Sandboxie configuration options." Download the QuickTime versions: "Attack," "Sandboxing," "Configuration." ]

Because of the number of things Sandboxie emulates, it successfully stopped almost everything I threw at it, including bots, worms, Trojans, viruses, rootkits, low-level disk editing, and malicious alternative data streams. The two exceptions were, as covered in the accompanying sidebar, two tenacious tricksters, the Adobe Flash clipboard hijack and the XP Antivirus malware program. Sandboxie didn't prevent the clipboard hijack, and it did not remove all remnants of the XP Antivirus malware program when I told it to delete everything.

Still, overall, I was more impressed with Sandboxie than I expected to be -- with three reservations. First, as comprehensive as the coverage appears, Sandboxie cannot virtualize system-level drivers, which can lead to installation and stability problems from both legitimate and malicious programs. Some of the low-level malware programs I tested caused "blue screen" errors and severe booting problems afterward. To be clear, at no time did I see a malware program installed in such a way that Sandboxie allowed it to run seamlessly outside of virtualization; however, Sandboxie allowed more browser and system crashes than most of the competitors.

Second, Sandboxie only protects one program or process at a time. When you use Sandboxie, you must choose which programs and processes to protect and when. You can create one or more virtual sandboxes, each with its own settings, but what goes into each sandbox is up to the user. Occasionally, I found myself accidentally running unprotected programs when I wasn't paying attention. Plus, it's just not possible to run every program and process virtualized all the time, for various reasons (consider remotely buffer overflowed system service, anti-virus software, tape backup software, and so on), which means they can be exploited. Other competitors in this review focused on protecting critical system areas against all threats and didn't rely on the user to choose which area to defend.

Third, all trust decisions are left up to the end-user. Sandboxie never makes a declaration of safe versus unsafe content. The nontechnical end-user usually doesn't have enough knowledge of malware to make successful trust decisions. For example, Sandboxie doesn't prevent against phishing, so if a user is sent an e-mail claiming to be a security patch from Microsoft, how many end-users would download and install the patch using an unprotected browser session? How many users might be tricked by the XP Antivirus malware program? Too many, I suspect.

Overall, I liked Sandboxie's coverage, user interface, level of protection, and wealth of configuration options, especially for the price. It's a solid utility for those who can make the right trust decisions.

SoftSphere DefenseWall HIPS 2.44
Although security is rarely a binary choice, SoftSphere's DefenseWall HIPS separates all applications into just two categories: trusted or untrusted. Applications that can be expected to interface with potentially malicious content should be placed into the untrusted category. Processes started by untrusted programs automatically inherit untrusted status. Automatically downloaded or executed content from an untrusted program is protected from execution and prevented from manipulating protected resources.

Installation of DefenseWall HIPS was simple and quick, and the accompanying help file covered the essentials. The DefenseWall HIPS comes preconfigured with 11 untrusted programs, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, QuickTime, and a few other frequently exploited programs (see Figure 1). However, Adobe's Flash Player was not automatically included on this list, and this allowed the clipboard hijack exploit demo to be successful.

[ View the companion video, "DefenseWall HIPS vs. the Adobe Flash clipboard hijack." Download the QuickTime version. ]

Untrusted programs can be launched in a trusted state by choosing the application in the Untrusted applications window and selecting the Run as Trusted button. This is a nice way to end up with both trusted and untrusted browser sessions to handle various Web sites. The untrusted browser sessions are marked in the title bar to help users distinguish between the two.

The SoftSphere program has many customizable options, including the ability to include or exclude specific Windows resources (such as files, folders, registry keys, and so on) as trusted or untrusted. You can roll back any identified resource changes on a per-resource basis, although the program does not always distinguish between legitimate and malicious changes, leaving the final trust decision to the end-user. I especially like that DefenseWall HIPS considers all programs from removable sources to be untrusted by default.

Overall, DefenseWall HIPS stopped most malicious threats from automatically executing, though at times in a disconcerting way. When I browsed to malicious Web sites with an untrusted browser, the DefenseWall HIPS added any further starting programs (in testing, these were always malicious programs) to the untrusted applications list (see Figure 2), which prevented much malicious activity. Further, it warned me (Figure 3) when a malicious program was trying to modify critical system files.

Auto-downloaded malware is saved to the disk, but in such a way that it is not a threat to your system. You can disable the program, remove it, or, if the program is legitimate, move it to the trusted applications area. If you manually save a file to the desktop, which is often the case with social engineering, DefenseWall HIPS attempts to keep it marked as untrusted, but I found instances where malicious files could escape to trusted areas.

The DefenseWall HIPS includes a Stop Attack window, which allows a user to quickly close all untrusted processes if a malicious attack is suspected. The Adobe Flash clipboard hijack exploit lived through this closing; DefenseWall HIPS did not report any events or modifications, nor did it offer to roll back any changes.

DefenseWall HIPS also had a hard time cleaning up from the XP Antivirus malware, as did many of the competing programs. Although XP Antivirus was executed from within an untrusted browser session, the malware program was able to permanently modify the system and leave remnants of itself behind, even after I instructed DefenseWall HIPS to close all untrusted processes and delete all resource changes. DefenseWall HIPS did a pretty good job in stopping most malware programs, but it wasn't perfect.

ZoneAlarm ForceField 1.1
Check Point's ZoneAlarm ForceField requires Windows XP Professional SP2 or later, and works with Internet Explorer (6.0 and later) and Firefox (2.0 and later) browsers. It prevents "silent" malware downloading and keyloggers, while providing anti-phishing services, Web site inspection, and privacy components. As shown in Figure 1, ForceField can open a protected or private browser session, the latter of which adds the ability to erase browser session markers. Once a protected browser session is opened, protection is indicated by the additional toolbar (Figure 2).

ForceField accurately prevented silent infections, although it did not prevent the Adobe Flash clipboard hijack. During the first round of testing a few weeks ago I was able to bypass ForceField by using a completely different malicious Flash buffer overflow file. During the later, and longer, second round for this review, ForceField held up without allowing a single silent infection. ForceField's user interface, although not the best in the competition, certainly held its own. Warning messages were easy to understand and presented at appropriate times.

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