Q

How sandboxes benefit network protection and malware defense

Nick Lewis discusses the concept of sandboxing and how vendors are using network appliance sandboxes to boost network protection and malware defense.

A top security industry vendor recently announced a sandbox appliance for advanced threat protection. Can you please explain what these appliances are and in what scenarios they offer value to an enterprise?

Sandboxes, which actually have been around for more than 20 years, have evolved to include many different ways to protect a system from untrusted code.

For those who aren't familiar with the concept in the context of information security, a sandbox is an isolated environment in which a program or file can be executed without affecting the application in which it runs. Sandboxes are a great advancement in incident response, forensics and malware analysis and have been extremely beneficial for blocking malware at the network level.

In the introduction of sandboxing to antimalware research, malware authors attempted to detect sandboxes and alter their malware to avoid detection. There has been a continual cat-and-mouse game of improving sandboxes and finding ways to detect the sandbox ever since.

Modern enterprises will benefit from sandboxes in many different ways, and extending sandboxing to the network level will certainly help combat malware. There are many examples of enterprise sandbox use:

  • Adobe Reader includes a sandbox to minimize the risk of opening a potentially malicious PDF file. Reader limits access to the local system from the application to stop the malicious PDF from compromising a system.
  • Similarly, Internet Explorer sandboxes Web-based content or anything opened in Internet Explorer.
  • Virtual machines are used as sandboxes to contain an attack to the individual system.
  • Some host-based antimalware tools first execute a file in a sandbox, monitor what it does and identify potentially malicious behavior before giving access to the local system. In a sandbox in a network-based antimalware tool, any time an executable is downloaded on the enterprise's network, the executable is run in the sandbox on the appliance to determine if it is malicious. If it is determined malicious, it is blocked or an alert is generated.

Per your question, a variety of unified threat management, next-generation firewall, Web gateway and other threat-detection vendors have introduced sandboxing features to their products. In most cases, when a potentially malicious file or program is detected, the device places it into a sandbox and opens or executes it to determine whether it is in fact malicious. In most instances the sandboxing relies on the device's ability to first identify malicious activity.

It's great to see sandboxing become a more broadly used security control within a wide variety of enterprise security products, but ultimately it's just one feature. Stopping APTs requires an entire "kill chain" of security controls, products and policy so that organizations have multiple methods to detect and disrupt an advanced attack.

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This was first published in June 2014

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