Let’s be paranoid and secure our penguins


The goal of this article is to give a short overview of practical solutions to run untrusted proprietary applications under Linux while limiting the damage that they can do and to prevent possible privacy exploits.

There is a interesting section in the Arch Linux Wiki about Securing Skype that got me thinking about it:

There are a couple of reasons you might want to restrict Skype’s access to your computer: The skype binary is disguised against decompiling, so nobody is (still) able to reproduce what it really does and it produces encrypted traffic even when you are not actively using Skype.

Trust the Vendor

Just assume the software has no security flaws, no remote exploitable bugs, AutoUpdate uses a secure HTTPS connection and checks the certificates, that it does not gather usage statistics or send crash reports that may contain sensitive information...

[chris@thinkpad ~]$ sudo ./proprietary_crap.bin

Pros: No additional work needed

Cons: No protection, the software may break your system, or worse

Comment: It just feels not right, I want a clean system without programs where I don’t know what they are doing in the background.

Different User Account

So this is probably the easiest solution, just add a new user account.


  • Easy to set up

    [chris@thinkpad ~]$ sudo useradd evil
    [chris@thinkpad ~]$ sudo passwd evil
    Changing password for user evil.
    New password:
    Retype new password:
    passwd: all authentication tokens updated successfully.
    [evil@thinkpad ~]$
  • Easy to use “su - special_user”

    [chris@thinkpad ~]$ su - evil
    [evil@thinkpad ~]$ ps -Af|grep chris |tail -n1
    chris    22265     1  0 02:04 ?        00:00:17 okular /var/tmp/sandboxing-notes.pdf --icon okular -caption Okular
    [evil@thinkpad ~]$ ls /home/chris/.gnupg/
    ls: cannot access /home/chris/.gnupg/: Permission denied
    [evil@thinkpad ~]$
  • No extra work needed to start X11 applications

    [evil@thinkpad ~]$ firefox &
    [1] 7628
    [evil@thinkpad ~]$


  • Full network access, using iptables to restrict network access for a single user way too complex and thus prone to security lapses

  • Running on the same X server

    Any application that has access to the X server can do a lot of things. It can snoop on other applications that display windows on the same server. It can log key presses. It can rebind keys. It can inject key presses into other applications. It has access to the clipboard. –https://security.stackexchange.com/questions/6209/running-proprietary-software-on-linux-safely

  • See the full process list with command arguments “ps -Af” and more...

  • What about SUID binaries?


  • The user evil should not be allowed to use sudo.
  • At least it protects your files in your home directory a little bit.


A chroot on Unix operating systems is an operation that changes the apparent root directory for the current running process and its children. A program that is run in such a modified environment cannot name (and therefore normally not access) files outside the designated directory tree.



  • You can install a different set of libraries that may be needed by the proprietary application without modifying your host system.
  • Possible to run a different version of the same OS



  • I haven’t tested it any further, normally I’m just using chroot to fix a broken system from a live CD.

Mandatory Access Control

Pros: Very lightweight

Cons: Difficult to set up

Comment: Very cumbersome to to get it right, easy to overlook possible security or privacy flaws.

Container Virtualization


  • Minimal overhead compared to a virtual machine
  • Containers start very fast
  • nearly zero CPU consumption


  • You can only run a Linux operating system inside a container


  • Looks very promising

Full Desktop Virtualization

  • VirtualBox
    • Very easy to use
    • Limitations: proprietary extension necessary to use USB devices
  • QEMU, KVM, virt-manager, GNOME Boxes
    • Good USB support
    • I never got Windows and Spice to work together as seamlessly as with VirtualBox (seamless resizing of the display, shared clipboard, shared folder). But I will try it again sometime.
  • VMware - proprietary itself...


  • Good resource and security isolation
  • You can run a different operating system like Windows


  • Running a complete operating system
  • Slow startup time while waiting for the OS to boot
  • Really resource hungry (have to assign at least 1 GB of RAM to each VM, 5 GB and more for every virtual machine image)


  • If you need Windows software then this is the way to go.

Further Possibilities

They are just too much of a pain to use regularly:

  • Dual-booting: different partitions for Windows and Linux, but dual-booting with encrypted disks won’t help mush because the boot partition cannot be encrypted
  • Using a live system
  • Use a separate PC without network access.

So I hope I haven’t forgotten any possibility^^


Everything less secure than a LXC container with limited network access makes not mush sense.

For resource intensive applications that run under Linux (like Xilinx ISE, basic installation needs 20 GB of disk space...) container virtualization with Docker is probably the best solution, have a look at my full Docker guide: Sandboxing proprietary applications with Docker.

For everything that needs Windows either use VirtualBox or dual-boot.

Further ideas and corrections are very welcome.

PS: I’m really not that paranoid^^ But I like to tinker with software and experimenting with Docker was really interesting ;)