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Hey VMware: Secure It Ain’t!


At last week’s VMworld, VMware presented, once more, their Mobile Virtualization Platform (MVP), now called Horizon Mobile. Besides the usual hype, there were a few things that I found somewhat annoying.

Specifically, VMware’s Raj Mallempati is quoted as saying: “What VMware is going to do is provide me a corporate phone, which is a virtual machine that is completely encrypted, completely managed and secure, and they are going to deliver that onto my device.”

Even considering that it is coming from a marketing guy, I find this statement rather dishonest. Because secure it ain’t. Not for the business. Not for the owner of the phone.

Let me explain.

Insecure for the business

As I explained in a blog last year, VMware’s hypervisor is hosted inside the phone’s native Android OS kernel (which is why they call it, incorrectly, a Type-2 hypervisor). What this means is that whoever owns that OS kernel owns the VMware hypervisor, and thus the virtual machine which contains the business phone. They encrypt the business phone’s data on flash, but that doesn’t provide any protection if the native Android kernel is compromised, it can simply read the keys out of memory.

Hence, if an app compromises the Android kernel, it controls the business phone, including all its data, network connections, the lot. And notice that the private phone keeps functioning as normal, meaning the owner is free to install and run any arbitrary Android app. With the Android kernel comprising about a million of lines of code, it can be expected to contain about 10,000 bugs. How many of the 100,000+ Android apps trigger an exploit? Probably plenty. In fact, this is the primary reason businesses don’t like company-provided handsets to be open, they fear security to be compromised.

Hybrid hypervisor adds kernel module to host and runs guest VM like normal app

Hybrid hypervisor

Insecure for the owner

But the setup isn’t secure for the phone’s owner either. It would be if VMware used a proper Type-2 hypervisor, as that would be completely untrusted from the native Android kernel’s point of view. However, as I explained in another blog last year, the MVP setup is actually neither a Type-1 nor a Type-2, but a hybrid hypervisor. It is hosted inside the host OS, not on top of it. (They wouldn’t be able to achieve acceptable performance with a Type-2.)

What this means is that VMware essentially installs a rootkit into your Android kernel, which re-directs the exception vectors to their hypervisor module. Meaning they take over your phone. Effectively, your phone is now “owned” by whoever controls the hypervisor. Which isn’t you, the owner, it’s VMware or the OEM or the network provider or your employer (or maybe all of them). All your private data is at their mercy.

And VMware go on to say that they combine this with device management software, so they can remotely wipe the phone without touching it. Only the business phone, of course. Really? Are they going to cleanly un-install the rootkit? If you just got fired, would you trust your former company with all your private data? In fact, would you trust your company with all your private data on the phone even while you’re still working for them?

Summary: It Ain’t Secure!

Not secure for the company, not secure for the phone owner. Take my Advanced OS class, guys!

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