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Do Virtual Machines Protect Your Privacy Better?

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You may have heard of virtual machines before, but do you know what they’re capable of? In the last 15 years, large companies have started using virtual machines to simplify their IT infrastructure. But can a virtual machine be beneficial to you as an individual user? More importantly, how secure are virtual machines?

Before diving into virtual machine security, learn what a virtual machine is and why you would use one.

What is a virtual machine?

A virtual machine (VM) is software that emulates a full computer. It’s hosted by a physical machine, and functions just like a computer, running apps and programs. But it lacks the hardware of a full computer, and needs a physical host machine to run.

Think of a VM as a computer within a computer. A VM doesn’t have to run the same operating system as its host computer; indeed, one of the main reasons to use a VM is to switch between operating systems.

For example, if you had a PC running Windows, you could install a virtual machine that runs MacOS. The VM would behave just like a program on your PC, but the software inside the virtual machine is sandboxed from the rest of your PC. If you install and run a program on your MacOS virtual machine, it can’t escape and tamper with your PC.

Each virtual machine has its own “virtual” hardware including CPUs, memory, hard drives, and network interfaces, which are mapped to the “real” hardware on the host computer. You can essentially run two different computing resources without paying for a second set of hardware, or the increased maintenance. While a VM is often run on a server, you can also run one on a desktop system.

Why would you use a virtual machine?

Since a virtual machine behaves like a completely separate computer that you don’t need extra hardware for, it has several potential uses:

  • Running software that requires different operating systems
  • Developing software for another platform
  • Accommodating different levels of processing power needs
  • Testing applications in a safe environment
  • Accessing virus-infected data
  • Creating operating system backups
  • Establishing virtual servers
  • Taking snapshots of your system which you can restore at any time

Advantages of virtual machines

A physical host computer can run multiple VMs, which saves physical space and cuts down on time and management costs. If you want to run a legacy application that’s no longer supported by your current operating system, you can run it in a virtual machine. You can also dedicate a VM to a single purpose, such as supporting a specific process.

Disadvantages

Virtual machines have several benefits, but they do come with downsides. For instance, you need a sufficient infrastructure to run multiple virtual machines on one host computer. Without it, performance on both your host machine and virtual machines will be poor. Because they’re not operating with their own hardware, virtual machines are also slower and less efficient than full computers. If you’re a single user running one virtual machine on one desktop computer, you’re less likely to have serious performance issues, though.

Are virtual machines secure?

Because a virtual machine is isolated from your host computer, you might think that it’s more secure. But keep in mind that having a VM is like having a second computer. It’s still vulnerable to the same attacks your host computer would be. Using a virtual machine to browse the Internet doesn’t mask your IP address or automatically shield you from threats. And although your VM and host computer are technically separate, some things could still be shared between the two if you’re not careful.

Items copied to the clipboard and certain folders can be shared between a VM and host computer, as can a network connection. A worm is a type of malware that infects an entire network, not just one machine. If you’re using the same network connection to browse the Internet on your VM that you use on your host computer, both can become infected by a worm.

Not all viruses will infect your network, however. Many will only affect the machine and unless a certain malware is specifically designed for exploiting weaknesses in virtual machines, it very likely won’t infect the host computer.

The chances of malware moving from a virtual machine to your host computer are slim, but you still need to take precautions to secure your VM:

  • Keep your your VM software (called a hypervisor) up to date
  • Isolate your VM completely (don’t share any files at all)
  • Practice good Internet security if you browse the web on your virtual machine

Virtual machines and security

If the only reason you want to use a VM is for better general security or privacy from an operating system that collects data, then you’re probably better off sticking with a regular PC. If you’re a developer who wants to test applications in a sandboxed environment, or a malware analyst who wants to assess infected data safely, then a VM could come in handy for you.

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