What is browser isolation? Benefits and types

Anton P. | November 9, 2022

Browser isolation is a technique for isolating browsing activities from networks and devices. Essentially, isolated browsing happens in a confined environment, similar to a virtual machine.

Thus, if malicious code from a suspicious website runs, browser isolation keeps it contained in a secure environment.

Web browsers are one of the most common attack vectors. So, isolated browsing can protect endpoints from the effects of malicious web content.

Defining browser isolation

Browser isolation generates a secure, frequently cloud-based environment that prevents web threats from harming users’ devices. By running in the cloud, away from endpoints, isolated browsing removes direct contact between devices and the internet.

The cloud environment deals with web content on your behalf. Furthermore, it also absorbs the damage caused by malicious or corrupted elements.

Instead of relying on endpoint solutions like firewalls or antivirus, you let benign and malicious content run in separate environments. So, even if users encounter malicious web assets, they won’t affect the device.

However, remote browser isolation is not exactly seamless. Its main users include corporations, and even they turn to isolation mainly for highly confidential activities.

Thus, despite its promising nature, isolated browsing is not something you can enable via browser settings.

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Types of browser isolation

Remote browser isolation (RBI) is only one of the ways to build a separate browning environment. The selected type determines how the isolation works and deals with users’ activities.

Every type of browser isolation deletes information about a user’s browsing session as soon as it ends.

Remote browser isolation

Remote browser isolation means web pages and JavaScript get loaded on cloud servers. In this scenario, the user is as far away from the web browser activity as possible. Such isolation gets achieved thanks to cloud servers and cloud vendors.

Furthermore, remote browser isolation can load web content differently depending on its setup:

  • Pixel pushing. Web pages get rendered as pixels. Thus, users receive a collection of images or videos of their browsing activity.
  • Delivering the final version of websites. This technique loads all components of websites and presents them as vector graphic representations.
  • DOM rewriting. This type of remote browser isolation removes all potentially dangerous code and elements before displaying the page.

In general, remote browser isolation is at risk of significantly increasing latency. Thus, the user experience can get diminished considerably.

Note: You must trust the cloud vendor to deal with your web activities with discretion, care, and respect. Similarly to Virtual Private Networks, your chosen provider can make or break your security.

On-premise browser isolation

The on-premise option isolates the user and deals with web content on a server set up internally. Thus, there is no need for a cloud vendor as the used server is likely within the private network.

However, maintaining servers can be costly, and some risks still exist. For instance, internet networks can still get affected by web threats.

Client-side browser isolation

Client-side browser isolation uses virtualization or sandboxing to isolate web traffic and activities from devices.

  • Virtualization means dividing a computer into multiple individual virtual machines. For instance, you can run multiple operating systems on the same device.
  • Sandboxing creates a contained virtual environment commonly used for testing and malware detection.

Benefits of browser isolation: what does it protect from?

Web isolation is a modern take on more secure browsing, taking many ideas from zero-trust security. The main idea is that users go online in a controlled environment.

It keeps devices away from potentially malicious code execution and other threats. For instance, it can even work against stopping zero-day exploits.

So, isolated browsing can be an effective solution to many rampant web risks:

  • Click-jacking. Websites can be deceptive and trick users into clicking options that do not lead to their intended destinations. Thus, web isolation protects users from accidentally downloading malware from unsafe websites.
  • Malicious ads. Malvertising means that dangerous ads get presented to users. Isolated browsing ensures that their code execution does not affect endpoints.
  • Cross-site scripting. Dangerous scripts could work on websites to steal session cookies or login information. Browser isolation prevents such codes from working on users.
  • Redirect attacks. Isolated browsing ensures that sudden redirects to unknown websites would not cause issues on devices.
  • Browser vulnerabilities. Outdated versions of browsers can contain multiple vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit. Web isolation stops such flaw exploits from occurring.
  • Drive-by downloads. You can download unwanted files or software simply by visiting a website. In an isolated environment, your device does not get compromised by such sneaky installs.

Browser isolation remains a prospect

Remote browser isolation is available through multiple cloud service providers. However, most of the solutions available right now are business-oriented. As for consumers, isolation services are not readily available.

Even the companies signing up for web isolation services use them sparingly. Typically, isolation gets reserved for highly-confidential activities. It is primarily due to the mediocre user experience. Furthermore, isolation can break many websites due to their complex build.

Alternatives for browser isolation

Unfortunately, browser isolation has a long way to go before it can be a seamless, consumer-friendly security option. For now, you can try traditional protection measures, like reliable antivirus tools, ad blockers, and private browsers.

Also, following essential cyber hygiene tips can significantly reduce the chances of getting your data or device compromised. A Virtual Private Network is one of the recommendations if you wish to apply more protection to your browsing.

While it does not isolate web activities, it does reroute them through a remote server. Additionally, all web traffic gets encrypted using modern encryption solutions.

So, a VPN is a high-quality solution if you are looking for a trustworthy and robust security tool for browsing.

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Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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