Analysts laud and lance new Microsoft browser armor

Terrific idea or band-aid that doesn't address Windows' real problems

Analysts today gave mixed reviews to Microsoft's new security model for its Edge browser, labeling it as both a landmark move and an attempt to mask the underlying problems of Windows that the company has refused to address.

"This is one of those ideas where you say, 'Why didn't someone do this before?'" said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy.

Moorhead was talking about Windows Defender Application Guard, a new security feature that will roll out to some enterprise customers next year. Only organizations that subscribe to Windows Enterprise E3 or E5 -- plans under which businesses pay an annual fee to run the operating system -- will be offered Application Guard.

With Application Guard in place, Edge -- the default browser for Windows 10 -- will run in a virtualized Windows environment when it's aimed at websites not on a list pre-approved by the IT staff. That will isolate the browser from malware that normally burrows into a device via vulnerabilities, then steals credentials and pillages data.

Because Application Guard creates a disposable instance of Windows -- and in a sop to former Vice President Al Gore, a "lock-box" version to boot -- it not only prevents malware from reaching the real operating system, real applications, real code and the real device, but when the user is finished browsing and the tab is closed, it simply tosses the copy into an imaginary landfill.

The idea of quarantining the browser -- easily the most vulnerable application on a device due to its duties -- is not new: Technologies like "sandboxes" have attempted to sequester applications for years.

Application Guard, however, is different in that when directed to an unlisted website, the Edge tab generates a virtual copy of a pared-back Windows using the device's processor, then bricks up every opening between the copy and the real deal. Browser interaction with the rest of the physical device is forbidden, with the exception of printing.

Moorhead made much of the hardware virtualization, and applauded it as a first for a mainstream browser. "This is a different way to virtualize," he said, comparing it to the more traditional approach of crafting a virtual machine using software, such as VMware's line. In the virtual space thus created, "Malware can't access your files, it can't scrape passwords," Moorhead added.

Others weren't as impressed with Application Guard.

"The whole idea of containerization has a basic security flaw," said John Pescatore, director of emerging security trends at the SANS Institute. "The idea is that if malware starts running in the [container], you just shut it down. But what happened while the malware was running?"

Users could, Pescatore, noted, be duped into offering up their passwords inside an Edge tab guarded by Application Guard just as easily as if they were running a different browser.

Pescatore also argued that Application Guard, like other protective measures Microsoft has layered onto Windows, was simply another band-aid that did not address the real problem with the operating system's security.

"You don't need this on browsers running on iOS or Android," said Pescatore. "So why aren't they talking about an application store for Windows?"

To Pescatore, the openness of Windows has long passed its prime; instead, Microsoft should move to mimic the mobile environment rules, particularly of iOS, which unless the operating system is cracked, or "jailbroken," cannot run code that comes from any other place than Apple's App Store.

By continuing to push the old regime, under which code can come from anywhere, Microsoft must fight every skirmish, wage war against every hacker and every piece of malware. It would be simpler and safer, Pescatore argued, to restrict what Windows can run rather than to build one trench line after another surrounding the operating system, the browser and other critical applications.

"Application Guard is Microsoft saying 'When bad software happens, hopefully it won't hurt you as much,'" Pescatore said.

But that, in essence, is the same tune sung by other browsers that use less restrictive technologies to protect users. "This is more like Microsoft catching up to Google," said Pescatore, nodding to the latter's Chrome browser. "The difference is that Microsoft is holding out the promise that if you only browse [normally] to trusted sites, you can really get tough."

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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