How severe is this vulnerability?
In summary; this vulnerability is serious but it could have been worse. In order to exploit it, an attacker would first need to have obtained elevated privileges on your system; root (defined) in the case of Linux and administrator (defined) in the case of Windows. Using this privilege the attacker can leverage the exploit to escape from the confines of the virtual machine (VM)(defined) into the system which hosts the virtual machine (in other words; the system which houses the virtual machine within its physical infrastructure). Once outside of the virtual machine the attacker must then elevate their privileges again since breaking out of the VM only gives them user level/standard privileges and not elevated privileges in the physical system. Thus the attacker would then need to use a separate exploit for another vulnerability (not related to this VirtualBox flaw) to elevate their privileges again to become root/admin within the physical system.
Obviously; the consequences of exploiting this vulnerability on a shared service/cloud infrastructure system would be more serious since multiple users would be affected all at once and the further exploitation of the resulting host systems could potentially provide the attacker with control over all the virtual machines.
How can an attacker exploit this vulnerability?
VirtualBox makes use of the Intel Pro/1000 MT Desktop (82540EM) network adapter to provide an internet connection to the virtual machines it manages. The attacker must first turn off this adapter in the guest (virtualised) operating system. Once complete they can then load a custom Linux kernel module (LKM)(defined) (this does not require a reboot of the system). That custom LKM contains the exploit derived from the technical write up provided. That new LKM loads its own custom version of the Intel network adapter. Next the LKM exploits a buffer overflow (defined) vulnerability within the virtualised adapter to escape the guest operating system. The attack must then unload the custom LKM to re-enable the real Intel adapter to resume their access to the internet.
How can I protect myself from this vulnerability?
While this is a complex vulnerability to exploit (an attacker would need to chain exploits together in order to elevate their privilege on the host system after escaping the VM), the source code needed to do so is available in full from the researcher’s disclosure; increasing the risk of it being used by attackers.
At the time of writing; this vulnerability has not yet been patched by VirtualBox. It affects versions 5.2.20 and earlier when installed on Ubuntu version 16.04 and 18.04 x86-64 guests (Windows is believed to be affected too). While a patch is pending; you can change the network card type to PCnet or Para virtualised Network. If this isn’t an option available or convenient for you; you can an alternative to the NAT mode of operation for the network card.