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Google extends security sandbox to Adobe Flash

Like airbags for Corvairs

Google has released a test version of its Chrome browser that extends its renowned security sandbox to Adobe's heavily abused Flash player.

The enhanced security feature, which was released on the Chrome developer and canary channels, is available only for XP, Vista and 7 versions of Microsoft Windows. It will likely be released for general use in early to mid 2011, Adobe spokeswoman Wiebke Lips said.

Developers from Adobe and Google, which have been collaborating on the feature since May, plan to take the feedback they get from users in extending it to Mac OS X and Linux versions of Chrome.

“The Flash Player team and the Adobe Secure Software Engineering Team (ASSET) are excited to explore this area as an additional defense for protecting our end-users,” Adobe Senior Security Strategist Peleus Uhley blogged on Wednesday. Google software engineers also wrote about the release here.

Chrome is already highly regarded among security researchers for containing each process in a separate sandbox that restricts its access to other parts of the underlying operating system. Similar Flash protection is available in Internet Explorer running on Windows 7 and Vista. Adobe recently added a similar feature, known as protected mode, to Windows versions of its Reader application. The purpose is to lessen the damage attackers can wreak when exploiting buffer overflows and other bugs that inevitably arise in complex applications.

Flash and Chrome developers essentially designed the protection from scratch using a “distinctly different sandboxing code base from Internet Explorer,” Uhley said. There will be a few resulting bugs, he acknowledged.

Uhley said Adobe engineers are continuing to explore other safety measures, including defenses against so-called JIT spray techniques, which penetrate other Windows security protections by abusing Flash's just-in-time compiler.

Over the past few years, Reader and Flash have emerged as two of the most widely attacked applications to surreptitiously install keyloggers and other types of malware on end user machines. Wednesday's release is the first time Flash sandboxing has been available for Windows XP users.

Adobe's goal behind the feature is to make it significantly harder to pierce the apps so that attackers turn their attention to other programs. It will take a few years until we know whether that strategy succeeds or whether attackers find a way to bypass the measures. ®

This post was updated to make clear that JIT-spraying defenses would be added to all browsers, not just Chrome.

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