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Border patrol for Internet Explorer

Start-up GreenBorder offers a virtual defense for the much-attacked Microsoft browser, but it goes only so far.

A security start-up is borrowing a technique from the research labs to try to give Internet Explorer PCs relief from Web-based attacks.

GreenBorder Technologies, a venture-backed start-up, plans to release on Tuesday a consumer security tool that puts Microsoft's IE in a virtual sandbox. Called GreenBorder Pro, the product uses virtualization technology similar to what researchers at antivirus companies have been using for years. In a virtual environment, malicious software is allowed to execute, but it can't touch the underlying operating system.

"We provide a safe environment for running IE," said Jim Fulton, vice president of marketing at Mountain View, Calif.-based GreenBorder. "You can literally go to any Web site, even if it is full of exploits, full of nasty stuff, (and) GreenBorder will keep it isolated from your machine."

Microsoft's IE is by far the most popular Web browser, used by about nine out of every 10 Web users. However, some security experts have likened it to Swiss cheese, because of the many security flaws in it. The browser has been the target of many cyberattacks, and some Web surfers have switched to alternatives Firefox and Opera.

But GreenBorder sees opportunity in making IE safer. Its security tool is designed to protect against Web-based threats such as surreptitious installations of Trojan horses and other malicious software. Cybercriminals increasingly use information-stealing malicious code in attacks, according to a recent report from the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

If a GreenBorder user visits a site and sets off malicious software there, the code will actually run and can do such things as changing the user's home page.


But any change will be erased after the person logs out or hits the "Clean and Reset GreenBorder" button in the software. "Then the slate gets wiped clean, instantly," Fulton said.

GreenBorder is not a cure-all for Web-based attacks. It helps if sites try to surreptitiously install keystroke loggers or screen grabbers, but cannot protect people from themselves--often seen as the weakest link in PC security by experts. Cybercriminals often use "social engineering" techniques, or cons, to try to persuade potential victims to download risky software, rather than sneak it onto the PC. And even with the tool installed, an IE user can still install software from the Web and have it run on their PC, if it's outside the virtualized environment.

"If you download something from a place you trust, you can remove GreenBorder's protection from the downloaded file with a click," Fulton said.

The product also has no shield against traditional phishing schemes, which use fraudulent Web sites to trick people into typing in their personal information.

"We keep Internet pickpockets from stealing the wallet out of your pocket. But if you take it out and hand your money over to them, that is not something we can help with," Fulton said.

Indeed, GreenBorder fails to protect against most real threats, said Russ Cooper, a senior scientist at Cybertrust, a security vendor in Herndon, Va. "The vast majority of infections happen because the individual chooses to invoke the malware," or malicious software, he said. Cooper added that silent installations of such programs by bad Web sites are far less prevalent than sometimes portrayed in the media.

"So, if you are a gullible individual who is likely to think that some Nigerian really does have $450 million to give you, GreenBorder isn't likely to help," Cooper said. "If you're a frequent shareware or freeware site user, it is not likely to help you."

When the tool is run, a green border is displayed around IE and the PC might run a bit slower. The product will get competition from Microsoft, which is working to fortify IE. The next version of the widely used Web browser also runs in a type of sandbox, where anything that runs in the browser can't touch the rest of the system.

GreenBorder Pro will cost $49.95 per year. A shield for files sent and received via instant messaging or run from USB drives costs an additional $14.95 per year. As a special promotion, the first 10,000 people who download the software will get a year of use at no cost.