Today, I’m going to walk you through the process of being able to browse the web in complete safety. The title of this post explicitly mentions “viruses”, but I’m using this as a more well-known moniker for the term “malware”. Malware is a more generic term which encompasses viruses, spyware, trojans, etc.
What I mean by “complete safety”, is that you do not have to worry about malware infecting your computer. It does not mean you are safe from being tricked into giving your banking passwords to a site that is only pretending to be your bank.
Step 1. Set up VirtualBox
The method I will be describing in this post relies on Virtual Machines for security. Think of a virtual machine as a fake computer inside your real computer. By using a virtual machine, you can perform tasks on a computer in a way that is completely isolated from your real computer. With this, you can browse the web inside the virtual machine, so that if you stumble on some malware, only the virtual machine will be infected. The virtual machine management software will also allow you to rollback all changes made to a virtual machine to a known state. Using these abilities correctly will allow you to browse in safety.
The first step is to install a virtual machine management software package, also known as a “hypervisor”. There are many different options for this, but I’m going to recommend VirtualBox. You can download and execute the installer from here. Just click the “VirtualBox x.x.x for Windows hosts” link (assuming you are using Windows). Once it is downloaded, just run the installer.
Step 2. Download Your Guest OS
Next, you will need an Operating System to use inside the Virtual Machine. You could install Windows as the Operating System, but you would need to buy a license. For a free alternative, I suggest installing Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Linux-based Operating System. It is very high quality, and completely free.
When you download Ubuntu, you do not get an installer. Instead you get an “ISO” file. An ISO file is a bit-for-bit copy of a CD that you would use to install it on another computer. Its a rather large file. To start the download, go here and choose your version (either is fine). You need to remember where you download this file to.
Step 3. Set up Your Virtual Machine
Now that you have VirtualBox installed and an OS ISO file ready, you can create your first Virtual Machine. Start up VirtualBox (you probably have a shortcut on your desktop). Click the button at the top labeled “New”. Give your Virtual Machine a name, for example, “Browsing Machine”. Choose “Linux” as the Operating System, and the Version as “Ubuntu”.
Next, you need to select how much RAM to give this Virtual Machine. I would recommend 1 Gig at the least. Enter “1024” in the box labeled “MB”. This means 1024 Megabytes, which is equal to 1 Gigabyte. Note: you need to have more RAM than this on your computer. If you do not have more than a Gig of RAM on your computer, then unfortunately, you probably do not have system requirements to use virtual machines.
On the next screen, leave the default options (“Boot Hard Disk”, and “Create new hard disk”). Continue on to the “Hard Disk Storage Type” screen. Leave the default option of “Dynamically expanding storage”. On the next screen, leave the defaults in place and continue on.
Once you get through all the options mentioned above, you will be returned to the main VirtualBox screen, but now you will see a new entry for your Virtual Machine in the pane on the left. Click on it to select it, and then click the “Settings” button at the top. In the settings dialog, select “Storage” in the left hand pane.
In the center of the screen, click on the disk image labeled “Empty” under the “IDE Controller” entry. Next, on the right of the screen, click the disk icon next to the “CD/DVD Drive: IDE Secondary Master” entry, and in the popup, select “Choose a virtual CD/DVD disk file”. A file select dialog will appear. In this dialog, select the ISO file you downloaded in Step 2. Now click the “OK” button at the bottom of the settings dialog.
You are now back to the main VirtualBox screen again. You can now click the “Start” button at the top, to start your virtual machine. At this point a blank Virtual Machine will start, and it will begin the install process for your downloaded OS. It will ask you a lot of setup questions that I will not walk-through here.
When the Ubuntu setup process is finished it will tell you to eject the CD from the drive before continuing. Because this is a virtual machine attached to an ISO file, this is not possible. Ignore this, and keep going. You will see the virtual machine shut down, and then start up again. Once it has began starting again, click the “X” at the top right of the Virtual Machine’s window to close it. It will ask you how you want to close it. Choose “Power off the machine” and click “OK”. The virtual machine is now shut down.
Now that the virtual machine is off, we need to detach the ISO image we have set previously. Return to the settings screen, and on the left, select “Storage” as you had down previously. Next select the entry below the “IDE Controller” in the center. Finally, on the right, click the disk icon next to “CD/DVD Drive: IDE Secondary Master” and choose “Remove disk from virtual drive”. Finally, click “OK” at the bottom of the settings screen.
Step 4. Create a Restore Point
At this point, your Virtual Machine is a totally fresh install. You may want to take a moment to get the Virtual Machine customized to your liking. After you have done so, you should make a restore point, also called a “snap shot”. VirtualBox can use a snap shot to restore your virtual machine to a known state. For example, if you stumble upon an infected website, your virtual machine can become infected as well. But, you can then revert your virtual machine to its state from before the infection. It is like it never happened.
First, start your virtual machine using the “Start” button at the top of the VirtualBox window. Once your Virtual Machine starts, take a moment to do any one time customizations, such as installing a browser of your choice, upgrading software, etc. Once you are finished, shut the machine back down.
Back on the main VirtualBox window, on the upper right hand side of the screen, you will see an icon that looks like a camera, labeled “Snapshots”. Click this button to show you the snap shots. You will see an entry labled “Current State”. Just above it is another camera icon. Click it to take a snap shot. A dialog will appear that will ask for a name and description of this snap shot. Enter something useful meaningful to you, so you know what you have changed. Click “OK” to take the snap shot.
Once the snap shot is taken, you will see an entry with the name you choose for the snapshot, with a “Current State” entry below it. You now have your restore point.
Step 5. Browse the Web
You can now start your Virtual Machine and use it to browse the web whenever you want. The websites you visit in the virtual machine are isolated and separated from your actual computer. You may have some problems downloading files or printing things from within the virtual machine, so some tasks may have to be done on your real computer.
Step 6. Restore Your Snap Shot
Whenever you are done browsing, you should shutdown the virtual machine, and restore it to the snapshot created in step 4. The easiest way to do this is to simply click the “X” in the top right of the Virtual Machine to close the window. It will ask you how you want to close it. Choose “Power off the machine”, and check the box labeled “Restore current snapshot…”. This will turn off the Virtual Machine, and throw away all the changes you made since the snapshot was created.
Drawbacks of Using This Method
While this is an effective way to browse the web safely, it is not entirely painless. First off, using a virtual machine takes an enormous amount of resources. While the Virtual Machine is on, it will consume a large amount of memory, and maybe a lot of processing power.
Additionally, it can be frustrating to have your changes wiped out all the time. For example, if you add a bookmark to your browser, it will be lost when you revert.
It can also be annoying that it takes so much time to start the virtual machine. If you want to browse the web right now, waiting a minute or two for a virtual machine to start is painful.
The method described above is basically the technology behind Light Point Web, except we do our best to shield you from the downsides just mentioned.
For example, we run the virtual machine on our computers, so your computer is not bogged down with it. We also integrate into your existing browser, so you are not prevented from changing settings in your browser or saving bookmarks.
Finally, our Virtual Machines are always running, so you do not need to wait for one to start when you are ready to browse.
If you are concerned about browser security, give this method a try. It is free, but it does take some time and effort. If you would rather someone else handle the work and headaches, give Light Point Web a try. We offer a free trial, so what do you have to lose?