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Can a malware 'pressure chamber' provide effective malware containment?

Infosec threats expert Nick Lewis discusses the viability of an antimalware "pressure chamber: to help bolster enterprise malware containment.

What do you think about the concept of developing a "pressure chamber" for malware within which an organization...

runs all new or incoming content through a system that's designed to safely trigger any executable malcode. Is this practical and cost-effective? If so, under what circumstances?

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There are many benefits to running an organization’s executable files through a “pressure chamber” to see what "blows up" when executed in a safe environment; it's a much better alternative than blowing up on your network. However, it is necessary to understand how to use it and its limitations.

An antimalware pressure chamber typically works by running or opening a file in a controlled environment, monitoring all resulting network or system behavior, and analyzing the data to identify malicious activity. Antimalware companies and security researchers have used virtual environments or syscall monitors like Systrace to analyze malware and standard tools such as Process Monitor on Windows can perform many of the same functions. There are other commercial tools that offer similar and even augmented functionality. One potential issue to note is that some malware authors have added functionality to their wares to determine if they are being executed in a virtual environment or a sandbox. They have added this functionality to make it more difficult for antimalware companies and security researchers to reverse-engineer them and create signatures to enable automated malware containment; this may limit the effectiveness of a pressure chamber.

There are some network antimalware devices that are equipped with pressure chamber functionality to help enterprises with malware containment, but it requires the purchasing of another device that potentially sits inline on an enterprise network along with a firewall, IPS, etc. Security professionals may want to evaluate if the pressure chamber functionality is contained within an IPS or firewall prior to buying or deploying a new device. Using a standalone pressure chamber for analyzing new potential malware would require significant expertise and labor in the analysis.

This was last published in May 2012

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