Is OS sandboxing the next step to secure computing?

One expert sees sandboxing such as that in Qubes 1.0 operating system, released Tuesday, could be an important part of future security

Invisible Things Lab has released an open-source desktop operating system that uses the sandboxing of applications and processes to boost security.

Qubes 1.0, released Tuesday by the Polish company, uses lightweight Xen virtual machines as isolated domains. The architecture enables IT staff and other users to set security policies for each domain.

 Joanna Rutkowska, founder and chief executive of the company, described Qubes as "reasonably secure," saying to call it unbreakable would be an overstatement.

"I use the term reasonably secure, because when it comes to defensive security, it's difficult to use definite statements -- secure, unbreakable, etc. -- unless one can formally prove the whole design and implementation to be 100% secure," Rutkowska said in a blog post

Nevertheless, Qubes OS is safer than other desktop operating systems because it allows users to build walls around each part of their digital life, the CEO argues.

For example, a work domain could be where people get access to work email and reports, slides, papers and other sensitive documents that can't be shared with any other domain. Network access could be restricted only to the work email server.

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For non-work related stuff, a personal domain could be created for personal email and calendar and where family photos and video are stored. Web access for this domain could be restricted to HTTPS to a social network such as Facebook.

Other domains could be built for online shopping, banking, more personal communications with one's partners or close friends or any other category a person chooses. File exchanges can be restricted among domains to prevent data from being compromised when one domain is attacked.

In general, Qubes OS is an advanced tool that improves security through isolation. Because of its complexity, the technology is not meant for the average computer user. "This provides for great flexibility for more advanced users, but the price to pay is that Qubes OS requires some skill and thinking to actually make the user's data more secure," Rutkowska says.

Besides adding a layer of complexity, sandboxing also places more demand on computing resources to run applications, said Andrew Plato, president and chief technical architect for Anitian Enterprise Security, which does security assessment and testing. However, hardware prices are dropping as computers become more powerful, so Plato sees sandboxing as an important element of security in the future. 

Indeed, some software vendors already use the architecture to prevent attacks from spreading. For example, Mozilla uses a sandbox for executing JavaScript, a common exploit by hackers, within the Firefox Web browser.

"More and more applications are going to move into a virtualized realm," Plato said in an email. "I expect that within 10 years, we could have desktops which are similar to thin clients and each application will essentially be a secured, controlled virtual environment."

How well Qubes OS secures data will depend on the implementation. A Java exploit on a Firefox browser would work just as well in a Qubes domain as on any other OS. The difference is in isolating the attack.

Corralling malware is key to the effectiveness of sandboxing. If applications within a sandbox-protected virtual environment have access to outside directories, file systems and other resources, then malware can spread without detection, experts say. 

Work on Qubes OS started in 2010. The beta version of Qubes 2.0 is expected soon, Rutkowksa told the Kaspersky Lab blog. Possible advancements include support for Windows VMs, for the OpenGL graphics library in VMs and for USB stacks disaggregation.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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