Saturday, April 21, 2012

Crimeware Immunity via Cloud Virtualization

There's a growing thought recently that perhaps remote terminal emulators and fully virtualized cloud-baseddesktops are the way to go if we're ever to overcome the crimeware menace.

In essence, what people are saying is that because their normal system can be compromised so easily, and that criminals can install malicious software capable of monitoring and manipulating done on the victims computer, that perhaps we'd be better off if the computer/laptop/iPad/whatever was more akin to a dumb terminal that simply connected to a remote desktop instance - i.e. all the vulnerable applications and data are kept in the cloud, rather than on the users computer itself.

It's not a particularly novel innovation - with various vendors having promoted this or related approaches for a couple of decades now - but it is being vocalized more frequently than ever.

Personally, I think it is a useful approach in mitigating much of today's bulk-standard malware, and certainly some of the more popular DIY crimeware packs.

Some of the advantages to this approach include:
  1. The user's personal data isn't kept on their local machine. This means that should the device be compromised for whatever reason, this information couldn't be copied because it doesn't exist on the user's personal device.
  2. So many infection vectors target the Web browser. If the Web browser exists in the cloud, then the user's device will be safe - hopefully implying that whoever's hosting the cloud-based browser software is better at patch management than the average Joe.
  3. Security can be centralized in the cloud. All of the host-based and network-based defenses can be run by the cloud provider - meaning that they'll be better managed and offer a more extensive array of cutting-edge protection technologies.
  4. Any files downloaded, opened or executed, are done so within the cloud - not on the local user's device. This means that any malicious content never makes it's way down to the user's device, so it could never get infected.
That sounds pretty good, and it would successfully counter the most common flaws that criminals exploit today to target and compromise their victims. However, like all proposed security strategies, it's not a silver bullet to the threat. If anything, it alters the threat landscape in a way that may be more advantageous for the more sophisticated criminals. For example, here are a couple of likely weaknesses with this approach:
  1. The end device is still going to need an operating system and network access. As such it will remain exposed to network-level attacks. While much of the existing cybercrime ecosystem has adopted "come-to-me" infection vectors (e.g. spear phishing, drive-by-download, etc.), the "old" network-based intrusion and automated worm vectors haven't gone away and would likely rear their ugly heads as the criminals make the switch back in response to cloud-based terminal hosting.
    As such, the device would still be compromised and it would be reasonable to expect that the criminal would promote and advance their KVM capabilities (i.e. remote keyboard, video and mouse monitoring). This would allow them to not only observe, but also inject commands as if they were the real user. Net result for the user and the online bank or retailer is that fraud is just as likely and probably quite a bit harder to spot (since they'd loose visibility of what the end device actually is - with everything looking like the amorphous cloud provider).
  2. The bad guys go where the money is. If the data is where they make the money, then they'll go after the data. If the data exists within the systems of the cloud provider, then that what the bad guys will target. Cloud providers aren't going to be running any more magical application software than the regular home user, so they'll still be vulnerable to new software flaws and 0-day exploitation. This time though, the bad guys would likely be able to access a lot more data from a lot more people in a much shorter period of time.
    Yes, I'd expect the cloud providers to take more care in securing that data and have more robust systems for detecting things that go astray, but I also expect the bad guys to up their game too. And, based upon observing the last 20 years of cybercrime tactics and attack history, I think it's reasonable to assume that the bad guys will retain the upper-hand and be more innovative in their attacks than the defenders will.
I do think that, on average, more people would be more secure if they utilized cloud-based virtual systems. In the sort-term, that security improvement would be quite good. However, as more people adopted the same approach and shifted to the cloud, more bad guys would be forced to alter their attack tools and vectors.

I suspect that the bad guys would quickly be able to game the cloud systems and eventually obtain a greater advantage than they do today (mostly because of the centralized control of the data and homogeneity of the environment). "United we stand, divided we fall" would inevitably become "united we stand, united we fall."

1 comment:

  1. There might also be some challenges while utilizing virtualization. . . . How can one deal with them?