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VMware’s MVP—Encryption Doesn’t Make It Secure!

2010/10/22

Last week I talked about the backwards step VMware is taking by implementing their long-overdue mobile virtualization platform (MVP) as a Type-2 hypervisor. In the meantime, an insightful blog (which liberally quotes from my blog, although without attribution) talks about their use of encryption to try to protect user (actually, enterprise) data. I’ll explain here why this is just window-dressing, providing an appearance of security rather than the real thing.

VMware say they encrypt the guest’s data on flash and also use an encrypted VPN tunnel to connect to the enterprise network. Surely, this will protect the data from attacks?

Type-1 (left), Type-2 (right)

Type-1 and Type-2 hypervisors and system structure

Surely not. This is akin to thinking that the data on your Windows laptop is safe from rootkits because the disk is encrypted. It ain’t. Where encrypting the disk helps is if you lose your laptop and someone finds/steals it and breaks into it. If your OS gets infected by malware, it helps zilch. ‘Cause in order to be processed, the data is loaded into memory and decrypted. And there it is fully accessible by the OS, and if that OS is infected, there’s no way to stop the malware from seeing (and leaking) your data.

Same story on the phone with the Type-2 hypervisor. The hypervisor can encrypt the guest’s data until the cows come home, that doesn’t protect it from malware infecting the hypervisor or the host OS underneath. If the host gets cracked, the hypervsior gets cracked. If the hypervisor gets cracked, you lose. No way around this fundamental truth. And the inconvenient bit of the truth is that the host+Type-2 presents a huge attack surface. While for a well-designed Type-1 hypervisor, such as the OKL4 Microvisor, that attack surface is tiny, about two orders of magnitude smaller. Take your pick!

So, what is an MVP-style solution good for? I’ll look at this later, but first need to take a more in-depth (and rather technical) look at VMware’s approach. Stay tuned!

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