Monday, May 27, 2013

more on bromium and snake oil

in my previous post about bromium i looked at claims that a technology reporter made about their technology (that it would kill all malware forever), noting that it was for all intents and purposes snake oil, and suggesting that the folks at bromium were doing the public a disservice by failing to dispel the false sense of security that that sort of reporting/opinion generates.

bromium's tal klein took exception to this based on what he believed to be my misunderstanding of their technology, and suggested i go read their white paper, among other things. here's some friendly advice for all you vendors out there: when someone calls you out for snake oil and you tell them to go read your white paper because they don't know what they're talking about, you better make sure they don't find more snake oil in your white paper - especially not in the second paragraph. and i quote:
It defeats all attacks by design.
that's a rather bold claim, don't you think? sort of suggests perfect security, doesn't it? but wait, there's more in the third paragraph:
It revolutionizes information protection, ensures compliance – even when users make mistakes, eliminates remediation, and empowers users – saving money and time, and keeping employees productive.
the emphasis above is mine. "eliminates remediation" or "eliminates the need for remediation" is something of a recurring theme in bromium's marketing materials. you can find it in their introductory video, and even hear a version of it from the mouth of simon crosby himself in their video on isolating and defeating attacks.

the only way you can eliminate remediation is if prevention never fails. but there is no such thing as a prevention technique that never fails. all preventative measure fail sometimes. if you believe otherwise then i've got a bridge to sell you (no, not really). perfect prevention is a pipe-dream. it's too good to be true, but people still want to believe and so snake oil peddlers seize on it as a way to help them sell their wares.

so it would appear that things are actually worse than i had originally thought. not only is bromium letting 3rd party generated snake oil go unchallenged, they're actively peddling their own as well. now just to be clear, i'm not saying that vsentry isn't a good product, from what i've read it sounds quite clever, but - even if you have the best product in the world, if you make it out to be better than it is (or worse still, make it out to be perfect) and foster a false sense of security in prospective customers, then you are peddling snake oil.

customers may opt to ignore the possibility for failure and the need to remediate an incident, but i wouldn't suggest it. to re-iterate something from my previous post, it's an isolation-based technique. although they often like to gloss over the finer details, their isolation is not complete - they have rules (or policies if you prefer) governing what isolated code can access outside the isolated environment, as well as rules/policies for what can persist when the isolated code is done executing. this is necessary.  you're probably familiar with the aphorism about if a tree falls in forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make any sound? well:
 if code runs in an environment that is completely isolated, does it do any useful work?
the answer is a resounding no. useful work (the processing of data to attain something that can itself be used by something else) has not occurred. all isolation-based techniques must allow for exceptions because of the nature of how work gets done. we divide labour, not just between multiple people, but also between multiple computers, multiple processes, multiple threads, and even multiple subroutines. we need exceptions to isolation, paths through which information can flow into and out of isolated environments, so that the work that gets done in isolation can be used as input for yet more work. this transcends the way the isolation is implemented, it is an inescapable part of the theory of isolating work.

and that is a weakness of every isolation-based technique - the need to breach the containment it affords in order to get work done. someone or something has to decide if the exception being made is the right thing to do, if the data crossing the barrier is malicious or will be used maliciously. if a person is making the decision then it boils down to whether that person is good at deciding what's trustworthy or not. if a machine is making the decision then, by definition, it's a decidability problem and is subject to some of the same constraints as more familiar decidability problems (like detection - after all, determining if data is malicious is as undecidable as determining if code is malicious). in the case of vsentry, a computer is making the day to day decisions. the decisions are dictated by policies written by people, of course, but written long before the circumstances prompting the decision have occurred, so people aren't really making the decision so much as they're determining how the computer arrives at it's decision. the policies are just variables in an algorithm. the decisions made by people involve what things vsentry will isolate (it only isolates untrusted tasks, not all tasks), but people deciding what to trust and what not to trust is basically the same thing that happens in a whitelisting deployment or when people think they're smart enough to go without anti-virus software, and we already know the ways in which that can go awry.

vsentry may have scored a perfect score in an evaluation performed by NSS Labs using malware and an operator utilizing metasploit, but that doesn't mean it's perfect anymore than receiving the VB100 award makes an anti-virus product perfect. they weren't able to find a way past vsentry's defenses because vsentry is still new and still novel. it will take time for people to figure out how to effectively attack it, but eventually they will. the folks at bromium need to tone down their claims and take these famous words to heart:
Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed - Darth Vader

Monday, May 20, 2013

no, bromium will not kill all malware forever

over the weekend a discussion broke out on twitter (as discussions are want to do) about a somewhat overly optimistic article concerning the new anti-malware apple of the security community's eye: bromium.

the primary tactic that bromium uses (or at least the primary one that people focus on) is isolation/sandboxing. bromium's vsentry product uses virtualization on a per-process basis to isolate every process from the system and from each other. that level of granularity for isolation is a lot higher than most sandboxing efforts can give you. while there are certainly benefits to that granularity, there are also drawbacks.

perfect isolation is actually not desirable, we want and even need to be able to use the results of one process inside another one. the more sandboxes you have, he harder this is to manage. the folks at bromium have opted to address this issue using rule-based systems to decide what something in a sandbox can access as well as what to do with any changes that are left when the sandboxed process is finished. rules which, in all likelihood, the administrator can modify to suit their needs.

now, while the article in question is reasonably good at explaining what bromium's vsentry does, the author (jason perlow) takes the arguably naive view that this sandboxing technique can stop all possible malware (as evidenced by the article's headline: "Bromium: A virtualization technology to kill all malware, forever"). the reality, however, is that there are limits to what sandboxing can do, and as clever as the folks at bromium are, they aren't clever enough to deliver on the promise that headline makes.

that's a problem, because people are going to read that headline, see nothing in the article to actually contradict it, and believe that it's actually true. have we seen claims like that before? sure we have - saying it can kill all malware forever is not intrinsically different from claiming 100% protection. it's classic snake oil, only in this case it's not the vendor that's spreading it (as far as we know - we don't know exactly what the folks at bromium may have said to mr. perlow, only that they say the headline is his words, not theirs).

i suppose that should mean there's no problem, right? the vendor's hands are clean, after all. the snake oil is being spread by a third party. the vendor isn't doing anything about it in this case or previous cases that have arisen because, let's face it, they benefit from it. it's good for bromium's business if people think vsentry is better than it actually is, at least in the short term. in the long term, the kinds of mismatched expectations that creates are the same kind that the AV industry struggles with daily.

it is bromium's responsibility to control how their products are perceived, and by failing to take action they are giving tacit approval to the snake oil being spread on their behalf. their hands are not actually clean, they are dirty through negligence. however, i didn't really expect any better of them (though i did give them an opportunity to surprise me) and you probably shouldn't either. tread carefully - caveat emptor.

know your enemy: security vendors

just to be clear, i'm not suggesting that vendors are waging some kind of war against their own customers - they aren't (usually) that kind of enemy. but by the same token, vendors are not your friends either. when it comes to laying out strategies for protecting yourself and your stuff, it's important to know what category to place the various players involved, and vendors are best thought of as adversaries.

to better explain what i mean, imagine you're sitting around a table with your friends playing the classic board game monopoly. although these people really are your friends, in the context of the game, their goal is to win at everyone else's expense. in serving their own interests, they act in ways that don't serve yours and in fact may sometimes be in direct opposition to your interests. in this way it can be said that you and your friends have competing interests.

the customer and the vendor are generally not competing with each other in the conventional sense, but their interests are not aligned and in some cases the interests do compete. you as a customer have an interest in keeping your computers, intellectual property, banking credentials, etc. safe and secure. vendors also have an interest in that to a certain extent, but protecting you and your stuff is not a vendor's highest priority.

vendors are companies. as such their highest priority is the bottom line. without the bottom line, the company ceases to be. companies don't just start up out of thin air, they need money; which means they have investors and those investors expect a good return on their investment, or else it's not a good investment and they might not invest anymore in the future, or maybe even pull out their stake in the company. companies also have operating expenses. they need to pay to keep the lights on and the machines running, and they need to pay their employees who themselves have expenses (families they need to feed and put roofs over their heads). therefore the company has to make profit it's priority. the way vendors make money is by vending - they sell a product and the more product they sell the more money they make.

in theory if the product is good then they'll sell more of it, but it doesn't need to be good enough to stop all the threats to you or your stuff - vendors aren't competing with the bad guys, they're competing with each other, so they only need to be better than other vendors. what's more, since technical 'goodness' is difficult for customers to accurately quantify, the vendor only needs their product to be perceived to be good. technical quality is still required up to a point, of course, because you can't fool all the people all the time. but, since your buying decisions as a customer are based on perception, and that perception can be altered/manipulated more cheaply through marketing than through technological advancement, companies engage in this kind of shortcut to help them maintain or even advance their market position.

how does this compete with your interests as a defender of yourself and stuff? well, in a few different ways, actually:

  1. by conventional falsehood, they make their product out to be better than it is and so draw you away from something that may actually suit your needs better (example: look at any vendor that's ever claimed to be able to take care of all/100% of any kind of threat)
  2. by omission, they make solving your security problems seem easier than they really are because nobody wants to make the customer swallow a bitter pill about how much work is really involved in staying safe, especially when their competitors aren't doing it (example: how many vendors will tell you about what you need to do when their product doesn't work? how many will even talk about that scenario?)
  3. by framing the issue, they make the customer think about the customer's security issues in the vendor's terms, thereby favouring the vendor's proposed 'solution' rather than formulating strategies to meet the customers own unique, individual needs (example: a number of anti-malware vendors used to provide generic detective controls in the form of integrity checkers, but those seem to be mostly gone now and vendors instead talk about technologies based on having varying degrees and types of knowledge about threats, while 'generic detection' (of a different sort) has become a glossed over, value added feature of their scanners)
all of these work against your interests in protecting yourself and your stuff. they work against you finding the best tool for your job, or figuring out everything you need to do, or even knowing there's more to it than just using the vendor's product.

before you get the wrong idea, i don't want you to think this is a condemnation of the people who work for vendors. individually, many of them may well be much closer to being your friend and being on your side than the company they work for as a whole is. their interests are never perfectly aligned with yours, of course. you won't see them sacrificing their own interests (their families, their money, their jobs) for your benefit, and you wouldn't really expect them to, would you? some of them (a scant few when you consider the total number that security vendors employ) will sacrifice some of their time and energy to help people (whether their company's customers or no) learn about the threats that are out there and thus be better armed against those threats. just because someone works for a vendor doesn't mean their character is a reflection of the character of the corporate entity that employs them. yes, companies are run by people but it's their collective behaviour that makes the character of the company. the phrase "none of us are as cruel as all of us" doesn't just apply to anonymous, nor does it just apply to cruelty. 

i also don't want you to think this is a condemnation of vendor companies either. remember, they're not exactly enemies in the conventional sense, but rather adversaries. as much as i tend to refer to them as bad actors, or irresponsible, or any number of other judgmental labels, i can't really see how they could work any other way. the judgments are really just a way of highlighting the divergence of interests between the vendor and the customer. there is some variation in the degree to which they do the the things that they do, of course. smaller companies are more easily influenced by noble ideals, in part because of size and in part because they have less at stake and so can afford to be more 'innovative' in how they operate. it doesn't always work that way, and it doesn't mean their bottom line isn't still the bottom line, but some take a more scenic route to their goals.

that being said, the fact remains that vendors' interests do not align with those of their customers (i.e. you). that means it's important to take what they say with a grain of salt and to evaluate whether the things they say or do or produce are really of actual benefit to you. pick over what they have to offer, take what you can use and throw away the rest. in essence, forage on the enemy.