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What is Sandboxing?

Computer security is a growing necessity of time, you simply can't operate your computer systems without a sound security setup in place. There are countless ways you can protect your computer systems from malware attempting to harm your system resources, your host device, your networks, and other connected devices.

Sandboxing is a popular type of computer security setup that is being used in systems worldwide today. Organizations of today need to make sure that they are protected from all manner of threats both internal and external.

In simple terms, sandboxing works by keeping potentially malicious software and codes isolated from the remainder of your organization's computer system. This will allow for a safe analysis of the threat without risking the compromise of your OS and host devices. In the isolated test environment the threat is analyzed in functions almost similar to a "sandbox", hence the name.

Why should you use sandboxing when you have a seemingly sound cybersecurity setup? Malware is becoming increasingly sophisticated and monitoring for malware has become increasingly difficult, even the soundest security systems face threats daily. Sandboxing eliminates any potential danger to your critical data and systems by isolating the threat to better understand it. Consider it an additional layer of security for advanced malware detection against security threats.

Why is Sandboxing Important?

Cybercrime is on the rise, one major focus of these attacks is small and midsize businesses, (Small-medium businesses) whose security systems are easier to compromise. New businesses are dependent on the internet and cloud for their operations. However, this means they are potentially liable for threats to attack their network.

The good news is that modern security measures such as sandboxing are designed to keep these threats in check effectively. Sandboxing can be used at any time to safely examine a potentially malicious software or file, all while keeping it isolated from your PC and computer network. Sandboxing essentially acts as your modern defense against new APTs (advanced persistent threats). These types of targeted attacks are better equipped to comprise your organization. They are built to bypass detection easily. Sandboxing helps stop such threats in their tracks. As a result, you can keep your organization's critical infrastructure secure from suspicious code and threats.

Two major ways are sandboxing is being used today:

  • Development purposes: This type of sandbox is used by developers as opposed to cybersecurity experts. They use sandboxing techniques to upload code and test it allowing for Quality Assurance tests on code before moving to production. Code that securely runs without causing any issues should be flagged as safe for production.
  • Cybersecurity: Next, sandboxing works as an effective cybersecurity technique to help keep your networks secure from malware. Such a sandbox environment has no physical connection to your production resources keeping it entirely isolated. Without letting it compromise your critical infrastructure, you can understand how the malware works and what you can do to stop it and remove it from potentially infected systems.

Without a sound sandboxing setup in place, these potential threats could bypass your security networks and gain access to your critical data and infrastructure. Even URL's online and files your download could carry malicious threats, sandboxing will isolate them from your networks. Sandboxing will essentially flag them as either safe or unsafe.

What is the Importance of Sandbox for Cyber Security?

Malware and malicious applications are becoming more and more prevalent and sophisticated in the way they attack your networks. Some malicious links and downloads could gain access to your network data if they aren't run through sandbox software before.

Cybersecurity is the name of the practice used to defend your computers, servers, mobile devices, and various networks from malicious cyber attacks. It minimizes the risk of unauthorized exploitation of your network systems.

Essentially, in cybersecurity, sandboxing provides an additional layer of security to protect your network from online attacks so they do not corrupt your system files.

Sandboxing will not only act as a tool to detect malware attacks on your network but will also allow for the effective testing of code to understand how it works. This will allow your IT team to figure out how best to tackle these threats in other scenarios. Sandboxing is particularly effective at the defense against "zero-day threats", also known as a zero-house threat, these threats are such that haven't been seen before and do not match any previously known malware signatures.

Your systems may be exposed to zero-day threats daily, which are not discovered easily by your cybersecurity setups. Sandboxing allows for advanced threat protection making sure that any such potential threats are still tested before they gain access to your network and servers. These types of threats are actively trying to compromise security networks everywhere, sandboxing is one of the few foolproof tools that let you stay one step ahead of these threats without compromising the security of your network.

How Sandboxing Works?

Sandboxing essentially works by executing, denoting code in a safe, isolated environment to observe its behavior and activity. Traditionally, security systems rely on already existing data, patterns found in known instances of malware attacks. But for new more sophisticated threats, such security systems cannot protect your network. Sandboxing allows for an additional more secure layer of security so even if your initial security defenses are unable to detect potential malware, your sandboxing setup will.

Most of the code you run on your devices already is protected using sandboxing, and you probably aren't even aware of it.

For example, the browsers you use to surf the internet! Most browsers are sandboxed so you can explore web pages easily without it compromising your computer data. Another example is Adobe Reader which runs PDF files in a sandbox so it can prevent threats from escaping the PDF viewer and affecting the remainder of your PC. Mobile apps are also restricted from many functions that standard desktop applications can do. For example, they cannot access your location unless you allow them to do so.

There are countless simple ways in which sandboxing is protecting your network security.

What are Sandbox Security Implementations?

Sandboxing will function according to what you are testing, as mentioned earlier we can use it for developer purposes and cybersecurity functions as well. There are a few types of sandbox security implementations, these include full system (hardware) emulation, OS (operating system) emulation, and virtualization.

  • Full System Emulation: This includes a type of sandbox simulation that uses the host machine's physical hardware, CPU, and memory so it can gain in-depth analysis into program behavior and potential impact. Essentially, it will allow for the emulation of your entire hardware system, even the input, output devices. You can get insight into what the malware is capable of.
  • Operating Systems Emulation: This type includes a sandbox that emulates the end-users OS (operating systems) rather than the associated hardware, therefore differing from the aforementioned emulation. Emulation in software makes use of sandboxing to imitate the behavior of another program or device. By emulating an OS, the sandbox has more visibility into what the malware is capable of. Of course, emulating the entire operating system is no easy feat, so developers will emulate a small portion of your OS. (However this type of setup is not as secure as full system emulation, cyberattacks can work around such sandboxes that are based on partial OS emulation).
  • Virtualization: This type of sandbox uses a VM (virtual machine) based setup to examine suspicious files or programs. Essentially it will trick an application into thinking it is running on a regular computer to study how it behaves. A very effective way to quarantine potential threats; you can remove them easily without having to manage any permanent resources. The program will think it is operating inside an active workstation/server so it performs whatever functions it can, but in reality, it is deployed inside a controlled virtual space that will stop it from affecting the files outside the sandbox. Removing the malware is essentially simple as you have to simply remove the virtual machine. These types of virtualized sandboxes are created and destroyed in no time at all, making them incredibly easy to work with.

What is the Difference Between Cloud-based Sandboxing and Appliance-based Sandboxing?

Modern systems are more dependent on cloud-based software as opposed to on-premise appliance solutions and applications. This dependency has led to improvement in production and output, but it has also led to the potential compromise of your network's security systems. Today, you will be using a mixture of cloud-based and appliance-based sandboxing techniques. Here we'll be discussing both, how they differ and which you should be using in your network security systems.

  • Both can provide you with an additional layer of security to protect against potentially harmful malware and software, cloud sandboxing tends to offer several advantages over appliance-based sandboxing techniques
  • Cloud sandboxing does not need localized servers for its functioning, it allows for the detection and testing of code or malware separate from your computer and network devices in a virtual sandbox. Therefore it functions on the concept of virtualization.
  • On the other hand, appliance-based sandboxing runs on physical appliances therefore it is limited to your physical setup. As a result, you cannot protect any remote workers that are making use of your network at a given time.
  • Cloud sandboxing also differs in its capabilities; it is better equipped to inspect incoming threats. For example, it offers the ability to inspect SSL traffic, a function that appliance-based sandboxing cannot perform effectively. A vast majority of the internet traffic is SSL encrypted, therefore it is important to intercept and review SSL encrypted internet communication between the client and server.
  • Cloud-based sandboxes are free of any hardware limitations, as opposed to appliance-based sandboxing which is dependent on the hardware you make use of.
  • Moreover, one major advantage of cloud-based sandboxing is the elimination of expensive testing appliances. Investing in these appliances means further costs on purchases and maintenance.

How does Sandboxing Improve Security?

To put it simply, sandboxing allows for a layer of security that differs from your traditional security setups. Most security measures rely on existing data, existing patterns, and previously detected malware, comparatively, sandboxing is proactive, it does not necessarily rely on existing data. Therefore, it is a more reliable form of security for your networks against all types of incoming threats, even zero-day threats.

There are countless ways you can implement a cybersecurity sandbox or use tools in collaboration with sandbox defenses to safeguard your data. On-premise/ appliance-based sandboxing and cloud-based sandboxing are popular types.

Let's say you want to strengthen your firewall. You can easily purchase an advanced firewall setup that makes use of cloud-based sandboxing. It will allow your firewall to inspect any suspicious malware and code and use its virtual sandbox to safely stop any cyberattack across your network.

Another popular example is a browser sandbox which we mentioned previously. Websites can come carrying malware that could affect your PC and associated hardware. Web browsers allow you to safely surf the internet and its web wages with sandboxing in place. Such threats and malware cannot download themselves into your computer, and in case your website encounters any malicious code it will safely isolate it in the browser's sandbox. As a result, your network will never be compromised.

What are the Benefits of Sandboxing?

Sandboxing has several benefits, making it one of the most popular forms of cybersecurity defense today. These benefits include:

What are the Benefits of Sandboxing

Figure 1. What are the Benefits of Sandboxing?

  • Protection of your OS and host devices: One of the biggest advantages of sandboxing is that you can easily test your program in an isolated system without it having any effect on your host devices or operating system. This isn't limited to your on-premise hardware but also extends to your systems that incorporate digital platforms.
  • Cloud-based threat prevention: Sandboxing will allow organizations to add a layer of security to protect them from online hacks. Most businesses do not operate in isolation, they make sure of online applications therefore the need for such software is apparent.
  • An advanced form of threat detection: Sandboxing allows for the successful detection and prevention of APTs (Advanced Persistent Threats) that can harm your system. These types of threats work in more coordinated attacks and can find holes in your security network so bypass. Sandboxing will isolate these threats effectively, so your systems are secure from such threats.
  • Testing software: Sandboxing will allow you to test and analyze code for any changes and vulnerabilities before you proceed with production. This will not only allow you to assess the limitations but also identify and correct any errors beforehand. This will resolve any concerns beforehand rather than implementing your faulty program in a system and seeing what it can do.
  • Evaluate new software: If you're working with an unknown unverified source for your software solutions, then it is recommended that you test the software before employing it in your network. Sandboxing can help in this scenario by letting you test any new software for threats before implementation.
  • Tackle zero-day threats: Most security networks rely on existing data for their security setups. Zero-day threats are comparatively new threats, threats that haven't been seen before and do not match any existing malware signatures. This means that traditional security setups cannot help detect such threats effectively. Sandboxing, however, can tackle these threats. Sandboxing allows for the monitoring and analysis of zero-day threats in an isolated environment without letting it compromise your sensitive data and network systems.
  • Complementary to other security systems: Your network already has some security strategies in place, sandboxing doesn't replace these setups but rather works in collaboration with them to only strengthen your existing security. As a result, your system is better equipped to identify, analyze and tackle any incoming threats, new or old.

What are Sandbox Evasion Techniques?

Detecting and evading sandboxing is not something new, cybercriminals are working on new techniques that will allow malware to successfully evade sandbox analysis. A specific type of sandbox evading malware is available that can recognize for example, if it is inside a virtual machine environment rather than the actual network. Such malicious malware will not deploy their functions until they are freed from the controlled environment.

Here are some ways malware can evade passing the sandbox environment:

  • Detecting user interactions: In a sandbox, there is an apparent lack of human interaction with the software since most of the time such programs are fully automated. Hackers can therefore have the malware wait for a specific user action before it performs any function. This could include an action that is only offered after a user scrolls to a certain part of a document. Others could look for mouse movements and clicks and only deploy once a certain number of clicks are made.
  • Detecting system characteristics: Some malware may be programmed to look for features that encode an actual real system as opposed to a virtual environment. This could include hardware components, installed programs, CPU core count, digital system signature, etc.
  • Looking for virtual environment indicators: There are also some indicators of a virtual environment, for example, malware can look for certain sandbox usernames or file names, hypervisor cells that indicate a sandbox deployed virtual environment.
  • There are also time-based evasion techniques. These work by successfully evading sandboxes that only analyze malware for a limited period. One such example is the logic bomb (malware that is programmed to deploy on a certain date and at a particular time) therefore it can escape sandbox lockdown easily. Another example is stalling code, a method by which malware will execute useless CPU cycles until the sandbox finishes its testing and isolation, once free it can deploy the actual code.
  • Internal data obfuscation: Malware is also able to change or encrypt its code so that the sandbox does not analyze it. This includes fast-flux, a technique in which DNS names and IP addresses are changed so the malware can bypass the blacklisted set of malware websites.
  • Monitor blinding: Another way malware can bypass the sandbox is by "blinding the monitor". Most sandboxes tend to do in-guest monitoring by placing hooks and adding code in the virtual environment to see how the file reacts in return. Malware can bypass this monitoring by flossing the zone with irrelevant API calls or system calls that render the malware useless. The malware cannot differentiate between relevant and irrelevant signals. The hooks and codes are then undone so the sandbox is almost blinded.

Which Sandboxing Option is Best for your Business?

Sandboxing is essential for your business security, a sandbox will successfully run documents and URLs within an isolated safe environment, separate from your sensitive data before delivery. In case any file is flagged as suspicious or unsafe, the sandbox will stop it in its tracks. As a result, you can continue with your company's work processes without compromising your network security.

Which type of sandboxing setup would be ideal for your business? If you work in a company with a large network of remote workers then you can benefit from cloud-based sandboxing. This is because on-premise or appliance-based sandboxing can prove to be limited in this scenario.

On the other hand, if you work in a smaller company that does not incorporate remote-based working on such a large scale, then you can use appliance-based sandboxing techniques. Considering the recent surge in remote work with COVID outbreak, this led to a notable increase in cloud-based sandboxing across networks deployed online.

All in all, on-premise or appliance-based sandboxing would be a better solution for organizations that keep their sensitive data limited within their networks, on the other hand, cloud-based sandboxing should be deployed for organizations that use cross-network services.

Of course, a sandbox shouldn't be seen as a one-stop solution for all your security needs. A sandbox should work in collaboration with other security measures such as anti-virus software, firewalls, anti-spam mechanisms for maximum security protection. But having said that, it is a vital tool that any organization wanting to protect itself from online threats must incorporate into their broader cyber security protection mechanisms and protocols.