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Posted October 19, 2009

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Internet Browsing Inside a Sandbox

Spyware Infested Websites - The New Menace

Posted by Scoroncocolo October 19, 2009

Sandboxed Internet BrowsingOn June of this year, reported that at least 20,000 legitimate websites were infected.

It wasn't long ago when the most serious malware threats were executable files hidden in email attachments. That's not that hard to do. See my page on How to Hide a File in a Jpeg. While that threat hasn't entirely subsided, the biggest threat today, by far, is infected websites. Just landing on an infected site can infest your computer with trojans, keyloggers and other vile malware without you realizing it. The scary thing is that you don't have to click on anything on the page to get infected. You don't have to interact with the page in anyway. Just visiting the page for few seconds is all that is required.

Spyware Infested Websites

Spyware Infested Websites

I assume if you are reading this page you are pretty tech savvy and therefore knowledgeable about security issues and careful about which Internet neighborhoods you visit and which ones you avoid. But is everyone who has access to your computer just as knowledgeable and careful as you are? Even if they are, it may not matter anymore. You may recall a couple of years ago when the Miami Dolphin's websites were hacked and visitors PC's were secretly being infected for a week before the offending code was finally found and removed. In June of this year, reported that at least 20,000 legitimate websites were infected. In almost every instance the people responsible for maintaining these sites had no idea that their web pages had been hacked and that visitors to their sites were being infected with malware.

You probably have a firewall up and running, and it's probably something more robust than the firewall Microsoft ships with their machines. You are probably behind a really decent firewall like Zonealarm, for instance. You probably have always-running antivirus protection on your PC - something AVG or Avast. You probably have antispyware tools installed on your machine that you actually keep updated and run once a week or so. Being the tech savvy type, you no doubt have Windows set to automatically receive and install updates and most certainly you are not using outdated, unsupported browsers like Internet Explorer 6 or Firefox 2.0 or 2.5. Hopefully, you even use Secunia to make certain all of your non-Windows software is up-to-date and patched. In an earlier post, I talked about the importance of using Secunia PSI to insure that programs like Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Reader, two programs that black-hat hackers love to attack, are updated and secure.

Even with all this protection you can still be infected by happening onto an infested website. The reason is simple. The bad guys are writing malicious code 24/7 and they're good at it because it's a lucrative, if despicable, business to be in. And unfortunately, every piece of malicious code must be up and running in the wild on the Internet before it can be detected and dealt with by the "good guys" - the people in the spyware detection business and the people trying desperately to patch the security holes in the software we run.

I know you know this and I'm equally sure that you know people who don't know this but running your new Internet Explorer 8 browser in InPrivate Browsing mode (Ctrl+Shift+P) or Firefox in Private Browsing mode also (Ctrl+Shift+P) isn't going to help even a little. As you no doubt know, Private Browsing only erases your cookies and browsing history. It does nothing to safeguard your computer from malware attacks. In fact running our browsers in Porn Mode may give some of us a sense of false security that might encourage us to do some things we wouldn't ordinarily do. It's the "Nobody can see or track me" false security syndrome. It reminds me of the old urban legend that drinking Mountain Dew was as good a birth control method as using a prophylactic. You know what we used to call teenagers who practiced that form of birth control? - Parents.

Browsing the Internet Inside Virtual Machines and Sandboxes

If the trend toward attacking and infesting legitimate websites with spyware continues, and it looks like it will, the only defense we have available that I can see is running our web browsers in such a way that our browser sessions are completely isolated from the rest of our operating system. As far as I know, there are are only two fairly uncomplicated ways of doing this. You can either run your browser in a Virtual Machine or a Sandbox. Either of these alternatives, if used correctly, will insure that your computer will never become infected with worms, trojans, keyloggers and other vile and nasty malware.

The simplest way to describe the difference between a Virtual Machine and a Sandbox is to say that a Virtual Machine is a separate computer within your computer while a Sandbox is an application that runs in such a way that it is isolated from the rest of your computer. One of the most popular Virtual Machines in use today is VirtualBox because it is Open Source Software meaning that it's free to use. I use it. I love it. I also use and love a Sandbox application called Sandboxie. So which method, Virtual Computer or Sandbox, is better and easer to use to safely browse the increasingly infested Internet? That would be the Sandbox method and here's why. Once you install a Virtual Machine on your computer you have to install an operating system like Windows XP on it and then you have to boot it up. I've installed Linux on my copy of VirtualBox which is also free software. Both Firefox and Internet Explorer run fine on the Linux OS and so do most other browsers like Opera, Safari and Chrome. The Linux operating system is much less susceptible or vulnerable to malware than is any Windows operating system no matter how well patched by being currently up-to-date it maybe. But it's still an operating system and as such it is susceptible to malware.

A sandbox, on the other hand, cannot possibly become infected because there's nothing in a sandbox to infect. In fact, you can purposely download the nastiest viruses in all of compurterdom and they couldn't do the slightest bit of harm. That's because the sandbox is totally isolated from the operating system and the registry. When you finish a browsing session, or anything else you are working on, in a sandbox, you simply delete everything in the sandbox and Poof, it's gone as if it never existed.

Browsing the Internet Inside Sandboxie

During the last couple of years, I've used and tested a lot of Sandbox software. Take my word for it. Sandboxie is by far the best I've ever found. I'm not going to waste your time explaining how to use Sandboxie because the tutorial I've linked to can do that far better I can. When you look at the tutorial, it's going to tell you that you need to have the product installed to use the instructions that it is providing about Sandboxie. But, you really don't. Read the tutorial all the way through and you will see why this is a piece of software that you could learn to love. I'll provide another link at the bottom of the page.
Sandboxie tutorial

Sandboxie is free-to-use software authored not by some giant company but by one man - Ronen Tzur. So even though Mr. Tzur is offering this fantastic program for free, please register and pay for it if you can easily afford to do so. The price is less than 30 US dollars (26 Euros) for lifetime ownership. Plus you can use it on any number of computers that you personally own.

Using the Internet in a Sandbox

Sandboxie Lets Nothing Touch Your OS

Sandboxie is a small program, just 620 KB, but at the same time, it's a very powerful program. It downloads and installs in seconds. The setup is simplicity itself. But the best thing is that Sandboxie is simple and even fun to use. No the best thing is that if you do all of your Web browsing inside Sandboxie you will never have to worry about spyware, viruses, trojans, worms or any other form of malware again.

Sandboxie works just like any other sandbox software. It creates a folder on your PC that is completely independent and isolated from the OS and the Windows Registry and allows you to run any program inside it. Let's say you were tempted to download a program from some website you were unsure about. You'd never chance it. Right? Well, just download, install and run it inside Sandboxie and if it's full of bugs, Sandboxie will show them to you and can safely flush the whole mess. Never Open an Email Attachment From Someone You Don't Know and Trust. That's in the the Bible somewhere - Deuteronomy, I think. Well, you can break that commandment inside Sandboxie with impunity.

All social networks, Facebook and MySpace in paticular, are becoming increasingly susceptible to spyware. The bad guys go where the traffic is and Facebook is huge and expanding rapidly. Plus, the bad guys know that a lot of Facebook users are not exactly computer geeks and are not very security conscious. Just this month ReadWriteWeb posted an article entitled Fake Facebook Profiles Are Spreading Spyware that you might want to look at. Don't get me wrong. Facebook does a pretty good job at keeping their site bug-free. But still, in the eyes of the bad guys, they are low hanging fruit.

I do all my Google searches inside Sandboxie. That only makes sense. Thank about it. When you're searching on Google, you're most often going to sites you've never even heard of, let alone been to before. Naturally, if your search term happens to be a hugely popular one, you are more apt to have problems. Doing searches on Hollywood celebrities, for instance is a recipe for trouble. If you fell compelled to google Jessica Biel or Brad Pitt you better get ready for some drive-by malware but searching for Jessica or Brad inside Sandboxie is perfectly safe.

And for those infrequent late night private browsing sessions conducted after enjoying a few glasses of your favorite beverage - for Gwaud sakes do it in your sandbox dude.
Sandboxie tutorial

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