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7/20/2010
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Adobe Plans Security Sandbox For Reader

Windows users can look forward to improved malware protection in Adobe's Reader software.

Continuing the security initiative launched last year to deal with rising attacks on its products, Adobe on Tuesday previewed forthcoming security technology in the next major release of its Reader software, which should debut before the end of the year.

Adobe Reader and Acrobat are widely installed applications for reading and creating PDF files. Because one or both are present on most personal computers, they've become targets for malware writers, along with Adobe's Flash software.

Adobe has struggled to keep up and the company's reputation has suffered. In March, security company F-Secure said that Acrobat/Reader was the most targeted application in 2009.

The security initiative that Adobe launched last year represents an attempt to turn things around.

As an example of what the company has been doing, Adobe in April introduced a new software updater that can be set to update Reader and other Adobe software automatically for Windows users (Mac OS requires a password for updates, so automatic updating isn't possible at the moment for Mac users).

Automatic updating is considered to promote better security than manual updating because it applies patches consistently.

Adobe's security rebound continues with the introduction of a sandboxing technology called Protected Mode in the next Reader release.

Brad Arkin, Adobe's senior director of product security and privacy, likens it to the Google Chrome sandbox and Microsoft Office 2010 Protected Viewing Mode.

"With Adobe Reader Protected Mode enabled (it will be by default), all operations required by Adobe Reader to display the PDF file to the user are run in a very restricted manner inside a confined environment, the 'sandbox,'" said Arkin in a blog post. "Should Adobe Reader need to perform an action that is not permitted in the sandboxed environment, such as writing to the user’s temporary folder or launching an attachment inside a PDF file using an external application (e.g. Microsoft Word), those requests are funneled through a 'broker process,' which has a strict set of policies for what is allowed and disallowed to prevent access to dangerous functionality."

Adobe's sandbox is Windows-only and will initially be limited to blocking write operations. Later iterations will block read-only activities, such as accessing sensitive information.

While past neglect of Mac development is believed to be one of the reasons that Apple CEO Steve Jobs has taken such a hard line against Adobe's Flash technology, Adobe's focus on Windows need not be taken as a slight. It could be said to be a vote of confidence in the security situation on other platforms. Adobe's rationale for coming to the defense of Windows is that Windows users face the most risk from malware.

"Today, Adobe Reader for Windows represents the overwhelming majority of Adobe Reader downloads," an Adobe spokesperson said in an e-mail. "Adobe is always carefully evaluating the threat landscape to determine the priorities and next steps in the security roadmap for our products."

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