What’s Wrong with Sandboxing?

How Sand-Boxing Works

The latest and hottest trend in cyber-security is sand-boxing. Sand-boxing is virus detection on steroids. Instead of relying on prior knowledge about particular viruses, this technique emulates a user’s workstation with a sandbox and tracks anything that attempts to go out of the box or attempts to infect other machines. The process is straightforward:

  1. Get all potentially infectious content coming into your organization, and
  2. Emulate each piece of content as if it was executing on your hosts.

Limitations of Sand-Boxing

Sand-boxing has low false positive rates, but causes a lot of false negatives. In other words, when it tells you that something is bad, it is almost certainly bad. But it has the potential to miss a lot of bad things.

Architectural Limitations

PerimeterThis limitation has to do with step 1 above (get all dangerous content coming into your organization). Your defense perimeter is dissolving because of new network trends and applications:

  1. Mobile devices continuously come into and go out from your network.
  2. Peer-to-peer protocols (which go right through sand-boxing and firewall appliances) are becoming mainstream (skype, bittorrent, b2b applications).
  3. Services are being pushed to the cloud, out of the grasp of your sandbox.
  4. Virtual machines move around at the speed of light from one host to another.
  5. IPv6 and other emerging trends are facilitating end-to-end encrypted tunneling right through your perimeter.

So, if you do not have a perimeter, how do you know what is coming in? Well, you don’t! That is why sand-boxing (or pure virus detection) is limited in scope and cannot survive the evolution of malware.

Another architectural limitation has to do with cost. If you run a large network, executing and/or opening every piece of content before it is delivered requires a lot of CPU and will slow down your network. Sand-boxing can only scale to a certain size; beyond that it becomes unrealistic and expensive.

Algorithmic Limitations

EvasionThis limitation has to do with step 2 above (emulate each piece of content as if it was executing on your hosts). Evasion is an information security term that refers to the ability of the bad guys to:

  1. Know how you are detecting them and
  2. Add subterfuges to defeat your specific security measures.

A sandbox can be detected. Once malware realizes that it is in a sandbox, the malware will switch to its best behavior so that the sandbox is happy. Only when the malware gets out of the sandbox and on to the the actual target device will it do its damage.

A second algorithmic limitation is that not every system is the same. Sandboxing a particular version of Microsoft (which is what commercial sandbox solutions do) leaves all you other devices (Linux, Apple, Android, etc.) completely open to attack.

How is MetaFlows Better?

MetaFlows is not an antivirus. We detect the attempts to introduce a virus in your network AND/OR detect the presence of a virus. Think of it as a network-level sandbox that not only inspects individual pieces of content, but also keeps track of the behavior of all your devices over time. There is one thing a malicious host cannot evade: being malicious!

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck… it is a duck.

How does it work?

MetaFlows looks for classes of odd behavior from hosts on your network:

  1. Scanning behavior
  2. Being attacked on vulnerable ports
  3. Downloading dangerous content
  4. Communication with questionable sites or sites that are already known to be bad
  5. Scanning outward or doing a lot of DNS lookups

If we detect behavior from multiple event classes over a time period (ranging from minutes to hours), MetaFlows triggers an alert.

Here is simple example:

  1. External host B performs a brute force attack to guess your password on port 22 on server A.
  2. One hour later there there is a large transfer of data from server B to another server C (on your network).

Bang! That’s a hit for us. But a sandbox has no clue! By itself, a sandbox would not detect this behavior. The malware could “play nice” once it realizes that it is in a sandbox. The sandbox would then allow the malware to leave and get inside your network, where it could do substantial damage. But MetaFlows can keep an eye on software even after it leaves the sandbox.

biohazard-laptopThe main advantage of a network level sand-box is that it does NOT solely rely on inspecting content (like an antivirus) but instead detects malware in the act of being bad. So, if someone walks in through your front gate with an infected laptop, as soon as that laptop misbehaves, it will be flagged down.

 

The best part is that MetaFlows works regardless of what devices are on your network – it solves the algorithmic limitations of sandboxes. Our behavioral event classes do not depend on the type of system: if an internal host is performing outbound scanning, we do not care if it is a Microsoft device or an Apple device. All we need to know is that it has engaged in malicious behavior.

 

networkcableFinally, our approach is much more scalable than a content sandbox. MetaFlows mitigates the architectural limitations of sandboxes by scaling to 10 Gbps links with standard off-the-self quad-CPU systems. The cost and power consumption are orders of magnitude lower.

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