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PC Security made easy: The sandbox
IntroductionIn this article
- How a sandbox works
- How to use Sandboxie
A sandbox is an isolated area in your system, where programs can run, but are not able to affect your computer.
The normal Windows environment is simulated for programs that are started in the sandbox, but all file access is 'trapped' and carried out in a separate area. This way harmful software is no longer able to access system files or cause any other kind of damage.
Sandboxie is a software that implements this sandbox principle and makes it available to you. In this guide you will find out more about Sandboxie and its use.
The program itself is available as shareware and can be downloaded here:
1. What is Sandboxie and what is the program used for?
Sandboxie is a sandbox program for Windows. A sandbox is an area protected from outside interference, where programs can run, but system files cannot be altered.
Sandboxie monitors the programs that are started in the sandbox and diverts all file access to a virtual file system. All changes that are made there are only effective in the sandbox. The real files on the hard disk remain unaltered.
Example: You start a text editor outside of the sandbox and write the text "Hello world" in the file C:/test.txt. You then start the text editor in the sandbox, open C:/test.txt and change the text to "xxxxxx". The file in the sandbox now contains "xxxxxx", whereas the same file outside of the sandbox still has "Hello world" written in it.
Sandboxie proceeds in the same way with the Windows Registry. Viruses, Trojans and similar "malicious software" are harmful because they "latch onto" the system. They alter system files for example, which leads to the opening of a Trojan whenever the system is started, or they just arbitrarily delete files.
Particularly Trojans alter the system in such a way that the user's files cannot be reviewed while the operating system is running.
When programs like these are opened in the sandbox, they can no longer cause any damage, as all changes are trapped by the sandbox and the real files cannot be altered.
Every time and as long as you open the altered files in the sandbox, however, you will of course also be opening the Trojan or virus. It is therefore necessary that you regularly delete the contents of the sandbox. This way all changes will be discarded and the files in the sandbox will again be identical to the originals.
A sandbox does therefore not protect against keyloggers, as these can still run and send your files through the internet without any hindrance. Not until you restart the computer and delete the sandbox contents will your system be debugged of these programs. It is therefore advisable to not only use the sandbox but to also have an up-to-date virus scanner and firewall installed on your computer.
Note: Sandboxie blocks some low-level access by default, which, on the one hand, prevents the installation of Windows services and drivers, and on the other hand also puts a stop to many keyloggers. This does still not give you complete protection however.
2. The basic functions of Sandboxie
Although Sandboxie is available to use free of charge, we recommend you buy the software (for just €26), as the free version only provides you with one sandbox, and a so-called nag screen (window prompting you to make a purchase) will appear after 30 days.
2.1 Sandboxie's main window
Figure 1: Programs
Figure 2: Files and Folders
The two screens can be brought up by clicking View->Programs and View->Files and Folders respectively.
The Programs screen (Fig.1) lists all programs that are currently running in the sandbox. Especially after one has started any suspicious-looking programs in the sandbox it is advisable to have a quick look and double-check whether any dubious program has been started. By right-clicking ->Terminate Program the individual programs can be terminated.
The Files and Folders screen (Fig.2) shows all files and folders that have either been created or altered in the sandbox. As there are usually not many of these kinds of files and folders (they are usually just Web browser caches and other temporary files) it is also possible at this stage to manually check whether any files that don't belong there have been altered or created.
Files that one wants to keep can be copied to the file system by right-clicking->Recover. The files will now also be kept after the sandbox has been deleted. These files will be lost otherwise! (see "Using programs with Sandboxie" for more on this)
2.2 The Sandboxie pop-up menu
Figure 3: The pop-up menu
Run Sandboxed: Here you have the option of running programs in the sandbox. You can also find this function in Window Explorer's pop-up menu or the file management system of your choice. (Right-click on a workable file ->"RunSandboxed")
Quick Recovery: Shows all files that have been altered or created in Quick Recovery and gives you the option of copying these to the system.
Delete Contents: This option enables you to delete several files in the sandbox and return to the original contents. Before this the Quick Recovery dialogue box will appear, where you will be able to save important files.
Sandbox Settings: Opens the sandbox Settings. More on this later.
The remaining functions should be self-explanatory. We will now discuss the most important functions.
3. Using programs with Sandboxie - properly
Before starting various programs in the sandbox, you need to know how to configure Sandboxie properly for the different programs. If you don't do this, it may lead to problems and even loss of files.
3.1 What programs should permanently run in the sandbox?
Generally these would be all programs that access the internet and are therefore vulnerable to attacks, i.e. Web browsers, e-mail programs, Messenger, etc.
To be completely safe, you should also run your poker software in the sandbox. Because, however, many web pages have taken massive safety precautions against bots and the like, which work in a similar way to Trojans, this can lead to system crashes. In that case you should just try it out and see which providers allow you to do this, and which don't.
You should also run your poker software in one of your own sandboxes, so that it is isolated from the rest of the system as much as possible.
Workable files that come from dubious sources should also be started in the sandbox. Don't start them outside of the sandbox until you are absolutely sure that the respective program can be trusted.
Those of you who want to be on the safe side should do the same for all files that have been downloaded, such as WinRAR archives, music files, images, etc. The reason for this is that the programs that are responsible for the opening of such files may be vulnerable, meaning that specially prepared files of any code can be opened and Trojans can then sneak in.
In the not so distant past safety gaps like these were found in programs such as Windows Photo Toolkit and Winamp.
3.2 Configuring Sandboxie
There are two ways to make a program start in the sandbox automatically (i.e. every time you open it).
The first method is to alter the desktop shortcut or the Start Menu item in such a way, that the program starts in the sandbox. All you need to do for this is enter C:/Program/Sandboxie/Start.exe in front of the file name.
C:/Program/Skype/Phone/Skype.exe thus becomes C:/Program/Sandboxie/Start.exe C:/Program/Skype/Phone/Skype.exe.
If you haven't installed Sandboxie in C:/Program/Sandboxie then you need to adapt the path name accordingly.
But please note: This method will only enable you to open the program in the sandbox if you open the correct shortcut.
This is the second method, which will only work if you have a registered version of Sandboxie. You will need to go to Sandbox Settings (see 2.2) and then open Program Start->Forced Programs.
There you can create a list of all programs that you want to open in the sandbox automatically every time they are started. Once you have added a program there, you will not need to create an extra shortcut, but can just leave everything as it is.
Figure 4: Example of Configuration of Forced Programs
3.3 Automatic saving of settings and downloads
So far so good! Now all the "vulnerable" programs will open in the sandbox. The problems will start, however, as soon as you delete the sandbox contents. Suddenly all settings and downloaded files will have disappeared.
The Quick Recovery feature, mentioned earlier, is helpful here. You can configure this in the Settings by going to Recovery->Quick Recovery
Figure 5: Quick Recovery
You should add all paths which you use for downloading normal files here. For example, every drive on my computer uses the /Temp directory, as well as a few other directories for this.
By entering the directories here two things will happen. First, these (and only these) directories will be shown in the Quick Recovery dialogue box, as well as in the Delete Sandbox dialogue box, where one can then easily copy the individual files to the system.
Secondly, there is a function called Immediate Recovery, which can be found in the Settings under Quick Recovery. This function will make a dialogue box appear as soon as a new file is created in one of the Quick Recovery directories, which will enable you to copy the files directly to the system. This is very handy for downloads, as instead of having to then "run after" the downloaded files, you can copy them straight to the system (if you want to).
The configuration of this function also includes a filter which serves to avoid having this function annoy you every time 100kb of a file has been downloaded. The filter excludes files which have already started downloading from the Immediate Recovery function, so that downloads are not activated until the download is complete.
The default configuration covers most of the popular browsers and download managers.
Figure 6: Download of PokerStrategy.com logo has just completed
In theory you could now just add the paths, where the program settings and all the other things you wish to keep are saved, to Quick Recovery. The Immediate Recovery dialogue box would open whenever you create a new setting, etc., and your settings will then be permanently saved.
Those of you who enjoy clicking their mouse are welcome to do so. Personally, I prefer a much more convenient method: Direct File Access.
Before going into this in more detail, I would like to take another look at the Applications screen in Settings, which will make the process a lot easier.
Figure 7: Applications
You will find pre-configured settings for a number of common programs here. By clicking on Add you can copy several settings for Direct File Access as well as Direct Registry Access. Settings, and also for example e-mails, etc., will then not be written in the sandbox, but directly in the file system.
If the desired program can be found here, you can skip the next paragraph, because I will now explain how to do this manually.
So we are looking at the setting Direct File Access. This can be found in the Settings under Resource Access->File Access.
Here you will see lists, where individual files or folders can be added, and to which certain or all (not recommendable!) programs can then be given Direct Access.
Figure 8: Configuration for Google Chrome, to keep Settings and Bookmarks.
Before you can create these settings, you need to find out which files or folders use the respective programs, so that you can save the settings. You can find this out by running the program in the sandbox and checking to see which files have been altered or created (see 2.1).
It is always advisable to allow as little direct access as possible. Each granting of this type of access represents a further area of vulnerability in the system.
Besides Direct File Access there is also the Full File Access option. These two functions are basically identical, except that those files or folders to which Full File Access has been granted also include files that have been downloaded (i.e. created) in the sandbox.
This is not at all recommendable and usually not at all necessary, and should therefore be avoided.
There is really only one thing to bear in mind and this is very important!
If you do do this, you might as well not work with a sandbox, as you will be giving Trojans and viruses all the freedom to infect your system.
Even by allowing direct access to non-workable files it is (very occasionally) possible to compromise the system. This means that even with those sorts of files you should only grant access when it is absolutely necessary.
- These functions should not be "abused" to make downloading easier, as created files can also be used.
- Generally only one program, and not all programs, should be granted access to files/folders.
3.4 Using multiple Sandboxes
The registered version allows you to use more than one sandbox. This may not be necessary, but does provide greater security, especially for programs that are common targets of attacks (for example Web browsers).
A further option is to create a sandbox for downloaded files only. This way older files that may still be in the sandbox will not be damaged, should you catch a virus despite having anti-virus software. The rule here is to just try it out and see what solution fits you best.
As Sandboxie also includes a number of functions which are designed to isolate individual sandboxes from each other as much as possible, it is sensible to run the poker software in one of your own sandboxes. This will prevent a Trojan, which is open and running in sandbox A, from getting to your poker account information. Sandboxie cannot provide full security here, but certainly increased security.
4. Deleting the sandbox contents
Sandboxie will remind you 7 days after deleting that your sandbox contents need to be deleted again. The Settings also give you the option of automatically deleting the sandbox contents as soon as there is no program running in it (the dialogue box we will be discussing shortly will then open).
Personally I found it easiest to delete the sandbox contents manually, before shutting down the PC.
Figure 9: Delete Sandbox
The Delete Sandbox dialogue box shown here is really just the Quick Recovery dialogue box with a Delete button at the bottom.
As soon as you click on Delete Sandbox all files in the sandbox will be deleted. You should therefore make sure in advance that all important files have been copied.
While working with Sandboxie during the first few days it is advisable to carefully examine the Files and Folders screen (see 2.1), to make sure no files have been left out, and to then change the Settings as needed.
I hope that this guide has helped you make more sense of Sandboxie and will make working with it easier. Any questions, feedback or suggestions for improvement can be posted on this forum thread: http://de.pokerstrategy.com/forum/thread.php?postid=4782343
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