Exploitation of just ONE software vulnerability is typically all that separates the bad guys from compromising an entire machine. The more complicated the code, the larger the attack surface, and the popularity of the product increases the likelihood of that outcome. Operating systems, document readers, Web browsers and their plug-ins are on today’s front lines. Visit a single infected Web page, open a malicious PDF or Word document, and bang -- game over. Too close for comfort if you ask me. Firewalls, IDS, anti-malware, and other products aren’t much help. Fortunately, after two decades, I think the answer is finally upon us.
First, let’s have a look at the visionary of software security practicality that is Michael Howard as he characterizes the goal of Microsoft’s SDL, "Reduce the number of vulnerabilities and reduce the severity of the bugs you miss." Therein lies the rub. Perfectly secure code is a fantasy. We all know this, but we also know that what is missed is the problem we deal with most often, unpatched vulnerabilities and zero-days. Even welcome innovations such as Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) and Data Execution Prevention (DEP) only seem to slow the inevitable, making exploitation somewhat harder, but not stopping it entirely. Unless the battlefield itself is changed, no matter what is tried, getting hacked will always come down to just one application vulnerability. ONE. That’s where sandboxes come in.
A sandbox is an isolated zone designed to run applications in a confined execution area where sensitive functions can be tightly controlled, if not outright prohibited. Any installation, modification, or deletion of files and/or system information is restricted. The Unix crowd will be familiar with chroot jails. This is the same basic concept. From a software security standpoint, sandboxes provide a much smaller code base to get right. Better yet, realizing the security benefits of sandboxes requires no decision-making on the user’s behalf. The protections are invisible.
Suppose you are tasked with securing a long-established and widely-used application with millions of lines of insanely complicated code that’s deployed in a hostile environment. You know, like an operating system, document reader, Web browser or a plug-in. Any of these applications contain a complex supply chain of software, cross-pollinated code, and legacy components created long before security was a business requirement or anyone knew of today’s class of attacks. Explicitly or intuitively you know vulnerabilities exist and the development team is doing its best to eliminate them, but time and resources are scarce. In the meantime, the product must ship. What then do you do? Place the application in a sandbox to protect it when and if it comes under attack.
That’s precisely what Google did with Chrome, and recently again with the Flash plugin, and what Adobe did with their PDF Reader. The idea is the attacker would first need to exploit the application itself, bypass whatever anti-exploitation defenses would be in place, then escape the sandbox. That’s at least two bugs to exploit rather than just one. The second bug, to exploit the sandbox, obviously being much harder than the first. In the case of Chrome, you must pop the WebKit HTML renderer or some other core browser component and then escape the encapsulating sandbox. The same with Adobe PDF reader. Pop the parser, then escape the sandbox. Again, two bugs, not just one. To reiterate, this is this not say breaking out of a sandbox environment is impossible as elegantly illustrated by Immunity's Cloudburst video demo.
I can easily see Microsoft and Mozilla following suit with their respective browsers and other desktop software. It would be very nice to see the sandboxing trend continue throughout 2011. Unfortunately though, sandboxing doesn’t do much to defend against SQL Injection, Cross-Site Scripting, Cross-Site Request Forgery, Clickjacking, and so on. But maybe if we get the desktop exploitation attacks off the table, perhaps then we can start to focus attention on the in-the-browser-walls attacks.
* Jeremiah Grossman is the founder and Chief Technology Officer of WhiteHat Security.