May 012011

The Cloud Is Not Safe

The recent hacking and criminal activities on the internet (AKA “the cloud”) affected millions of users worldwide and many web systems, including reputable websites and some giant corporations. For example, look at the LizaMoon Scareware which was a work of mass social engineering, or the much more drastic case of Sony PlayStation Network which has now been down for two weeks due to a hacking attack that possibly stole millions of accounts and credit cards. The ever growing risk of contracting malware and viruses from legitimate websites is constantly increasing the importance of safe internet browsing. Guess what most high security networks have in common with internet access? They are completely disconnected from it! When you have a very important business or military computer with very important files on it, you have to consider this extreme option as well. Not that we want to do that on our average work or home systems because the internet benefits outweigh its risks but we need to protect our systems by starting at the door to the outside world, at the internet browser session level.

Private Browsing Sessions Are Not Safe

Browsing in “incognito”, “privacy” or “anonymous” mode that some browsers provide can easily lull users into a deceitful feeling of security, but these sessions are not safe. They stop the visited places from appearing in browser history and make the user appear as an anonymous visitor on the host server, but an encounter with some malicious code during these sessions can still end up with the browser and the computer getting infected with a virus or taken over by a trojan or spyware.

Separation of “Church and State”

When Microsoft first bundled Internet Explorer with Windows many experts didn’t like the idea of having one particular browser fully and deeply integrated into the operating system because of a serious concern about what happens to a computer once its browser gets hacked – the OS can get compromised as well. European Union even went as far as warning Microsoft against bundling Internet Explorer with Windows but that was for other, anti-trust reasons. Nevertheless, I salute the option – when you buy Windows 7 in Europe it comes without Internet Explorer and those who want it can still download the most recent version. I have always believed in full separation of the internet browser and the operating system and I have been using various browsers like Netscape, and later Mozilla Firefox and Chrome combined with virtualized environments both at work and at home, leaving the Internet Explorer only for some sites and admin utilities that don’t work with other browsers. Safari on Apple may be as bad or worse because of the questionable and very scary assumption that there will be no viruses for Apple.

Macs Are Not Immune to Malware

I was just browsing at Best Buy store the other day when a young and enthusiastic sales assistant came out of nowhere and tried to persuade me to buy a Mac laptop, using the common misconception that Apple computers need no virus protection as one of their advantages. Well, I like Macs and with more $ in my wallet, my home would have had one Apple laptop long time ago, but this certainly is a wrong way to persuade me to buy one. I’ve got news for you. Macs are not more secure. Their owners are just lucky because most hackers focus on Windows due to its huge market share, but Apple desktops are now making it to corporate environments at Google and other companies and it is just a matter of time when there will be more malware attacks on Macs. There are antivirus programs for Apple machines, so if you are a Mac user, get some protection before something nasty spreads to your Mac.

Free VM for Every User

Throughout my past I’ve seen way too many users contract a spyware, malware or a virus from the internet without admittedly visiting any sites that weren’t work-related. This spanned across all user types, beginners, average as well as advanced or super important users such as administrative assistants, high end executives, attorneys and even network managers. This is a definite sign that everybody needs more protection from a different approach.

I believe every computer should have a secured virtual browsing ‘appliance’ or a virtual machine to protect its main OS and files from the growing dangers of the web. These environments should be separate and well secured from the rest of the computer. This is easy for me to do because I have been dealing with virtualization and practicing this for many years, however, since this is not so simple for the average user, it is way overdue that the OS manufacturers like Microsoft and Apple start including fully isolated and auto-reverting fast virtual environments for safe (not just private) browsing into their standard operating systems, thus lowering the risk of infection, identity theft and data loss for end users.

There are many computers in the world that have been compromised and under control of one of the remotely controlled botnets and this possibly involves hundreds of millions of PCs worldwide. What’s worse, most of their owners don’t know that their systems are under remote control and ready to execute commands sent by the botnet network masterminds. Don’t be one of those users – protect your computer and at least get a good antivirus program. Don’t trust everything you read on the internet and every email you receive, because some of it may be a phishing attempt to get your identity or financial information, or a social engineering scam to get your money (see my recent job offer email scam examples). If you are really concerned about the importance and security of your computer when you’re out on the internet, either use a safe browsing appliance and revert regularly, or use a different computer for browsing.

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