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Google, Adobe sandbox Flash for Chrome to protect users

Chrome's 'dev' build for Windows now blocks Flash attack code from infecting PCs

December 2, 2010 02:53 PM ET

Computerworld - Adobe and Google have collaborated to put the Flash Player plug-in inside a sandbox within Chrome, an effort by the two companies to better protect users from attacks.

The sandbox has been introduced into the roughest version of Chrome -- the "dev" build -- and is currently available only on the Windows edition of Google's browser.

A "sandbox" isolates processes on the computer, preventing or at least hindering malware from escaping an application to wreak havoc on the machine.

Flash has become a very popular target for hackers, who have regularly exploited its vulnerabilities this year. Adobe has had to patch Flash five times since January, and in several cases had to issue emergency fixes to stymie ongoing attacks.

Apple, which has been squabbling with Adobe over Flash since the 2007 introduction of the iPhone, recently yanked the software from its newest MacBook Air, and plans to eliminate it from future machines as well. It cited security as the reason for dropping Flash from its Mac OS X operating system.

Google took a different tack: It worked with Adobe to craft a sandbox that shelters Flash Player.

"There was a lot of work on both sides," said Peleus Uhley, Adobe's platform security strategist, in a Wednesday interview. "The interfaces to open-source browsers are completely different from, say, Internet Explorer, and we had to restructure Flash Player to put it in a sandbox."

The Flash sandbox uses some elements of the already-in-place technology that Chrome uses to protect HTML and JavaScript, but much of the new work was created from scratch, added Brad Arkin, Adobe's director of security and privacy. "The biggest challenge was getting the full functionally of Flash from within this new sandbox," he said.

Adobe worked with Google to create new APIs (application programming interfaces) to support Flash in a sandbox, a necessary step because Flash Player, unlike HTML and JavaScript, is a plug-in.

"The Flash Player sandbox is specifically designed around Flash's processes and functionality to protect certain sensitive resources from being accessed by malicious code, while allowing the use of less sensitive ones," said Google's Chrome team in an e-mail reply to Computerworld's questions Wednesday.

Specifically, Google's and Adobe's engineers partnered to build a "broker" process, which decides which functions Flash can conduct outside the sandbox, and mediates requests between the plug-in and the rest of the browser, as well as the operating system.

"This restricts the ability of malicious code that may be running in Flash Player to compromise sensitive system resources," Google explained.

"The concept is the same as the sandbox in Reader X," said Uhley, talking about the latest version of Adobe's PDF viewer. "The goal is the same and the model is identical: Flash Player runs with low privileges and uses a broker process. But the sandbox [in Chrome] is very different from the one in Reader X."

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