ZoneAlarm ForceField: Compromised in sixty seconds

Check Point's virtualized browser security client, like would-be panaceas before it, fails to live up to the hype

Check Point Software's new Web browser security software, called ZoneAlarm ForceField, integrates a host-based firewall, anti-spyware, Web site rating, anti-phishing, and keylogger-jamming into a limited virtualization environment with the elegant user interface you've come to expect from the ZoneAlarm brand. Its goal is to provide superior anti-malware protection against the increasingly prevalent and complex threats posed to Internet surfers.

To be frank, I've reviewed similar over-marketed and under-effective virtualized or "sandbox" security clients over the years (most notably GreenBorder, subsequently acquired by Google), all of which promised to provide superior protection against all malicious Internet threats. Unfortunately, although ForceField does offer some real improvements over the other products I've reviewed, it wasn't enough to stop malware from infecting my test systems. In less than a minute, by clicking only my third malicious Web site link, my test system was silently compromised without so much as a chirp out of ForceField. This is not to say that ForceField didn't deliver some protection and detection, but I'm getting ahead of my review.

Although I am overly skeptical of limited virtualization products, I'm a big fan of both Check Point and ZoneAlarm, and I was eager to see what the solution brought to the space. Unfortunately, Check Point's accompanying whitepaper re-awakened my initial skepticism by using new, unnecessary technical jargon ("Web-based Super Attacks," "New Advanced Technologies") and over-promising the protection ForceField can provide ("reject all changes to the user's PC unless the user specifically solicits them"), while overly criticizing traditional defenses.

Browsing for trouble

Much of what ForceField claims to do (file and registry virtualization, blocking drive-by-downloads, and so on) is also claimed by Microsoft in Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 7 Protected Mode. Accordingly, I ran the tests on unpatched versions of Windows XP Pro SP2 with Internet Explorer 6 and Firefox 2.0, with intentionally older versions of common browser add-ons. I wanted to give malicious Web sites ample opportunity to infect the underlying operating system while giving ForceField the best chance of being the sole blocker (versus measuring unexpected browser or operating system defenses).

I then installed ZoneAlarm ForceField v.1.0.331.0 with default settings and surfed to dozens of known malicious, live Web sites. I opened malicious links listed on www.shadowserver.org and www.dshield.org, and found others by searching for Web sites with the string "killwow1.cn/g.js" in the source code. The latter string is associated with thousands of recent, maliciously infected Web sites. Note: Don't attempt to duplicate my query unless you are prepared to wrangle with malicious code.

Installation of ForceField went smoothly as promised. The footprint is small (just 4MB to 5MB), and configuration is minimal. After installation, a small ForceField icon appears on the status bar, and a new ForceField menu bar is added to the browser. Clicking on the icon allows access to the limited and self-explanatory configuration menu.

The only notable option that needs more explanation is the Clear button. This button is to be clicked when the user decides that the data in the virtualized browser environment should be deleted prior to ForceField deciding on its own. This option is a benefit as well as one of the weaknesses of this product and its similar cousins. Asking end-users to decide when to reset virtual environments is circular logic. If end-users could consistently and appropriately recognize when they were exposed to malware in the first place, they wouldn't need the virtual environment.

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