Adobe's PDF document format and Adobe Reader are among the most attacked and vulnerable technologies on the Web today. Exploits emerge on a regular basis as Adobe races to issue patches for them. One solution to the problem might be Adobe's new sandboxing technology which isolates processes in an attempt to mitigate risk.

According to software vendor Invincea, sandboxing alone is not enough and that's why they have developed a new document protection solution to reduce PDF risks. Invincea Document Protection leverages VMware technology to virtualize PDF delivery, limiting the PDF's ability to interact with the rest of the operating system.

"What we've done is taken Adobe Reader and moved it into a fully virtualized environment," Anup Ghosh founder and chief scientist at Invincea, told InternetNews.com. "So now when a user opens a PDF from an email, their desktop or a USB drive, we will move the PDF to a fully virtualized environment, so if the document is infected it will only affect the virtual environment and not the desktop."

In the event the PDF contains malware, Ghosh noted that the virtual PDF instance can be disposed off, with threat information sent to Invincea's threat servers.

From a user point of view, the way Invincea Document Protection works is it installs on the user desktop as the default handler for PDF files. So whenever a PDF link is clicked, the Invincea engine is triggered instead of Adobe Reader.

Ghosh explained that the underlying virtualization technology used by Invincea is a VMware engine. He added that users don't need to download and install VMware Player to use Invincea. Invincea bundles the VMware technology as part of a complete Windows application, so the user never directly installs VMware themselves.

While Invincea is leveraging VMware technology, Ghosh noted that his company layers in additional configurations to ensure enhanced security.

"VMware doesn't provide a secure solution, it provides a virtual environment," Ghosh said. "What we've done is incorporate VMware in our product, but we've engineered our product for a secure environment."

Ghosh explained that with Invincea Document Protection there is no interaction between the PDF and the user's desktop. Additionally the Invincea virtual environment has a set of sensors that are tuned for Adobe Reader. So if a PDF is opened, and it attempts to do something malicious like drop a file on the desktop, or open up a network port, the Invincea instrumentation will detect that as unauthorized behavior. Ghosh noted that the Invincea solution does not however include any specific anti-virus functionality.

Adobe recently launched its Adobe Reader X technology, which provides a process sandbox intended to reduce potential risks. In Ghosh's view, Reader X is a step in the right direction for securing PDF, though it's not a complete solution to all PDF risks.

According to Ghosh, buffer overflow exploits and filesystem risks are not protected by the Adobe Reader X sandbox. He noted that Adobe Reader is a complex application with access to lots of system resources.

"I think that there is still some residual risk that they (Adobe) are not addressing," Ghosh said. "We believe that you need to package Adobe Reader along with system libraries into a super-sandbox, which is Invincea Document Protection."

The Invincea Document Protection solution is being bundled as an extension of the firm's browser protection software, which provides a virtual environment for running Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. Invincea's browser protection software competes against rival solutions from Dell and HP in the competitive market for virtual browser applications.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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