Courtesy: Mr. Granneman.
A man goes in to see a doctor. "Doc, whenever I lift my left arm, I get a shooting pain in my shoulder. What should I do?" The doctor replied, "Stop lifting your left arm."
I think many of us are in the position of that man, and today I'd like to act as your physician. Except that I'm not going to talk about left arms and pains in the shoulder; I'm going to talk about a piece of software that causes us pain in a different part of the body - Internet Explorer.
The latest version of IE is 6, and it has certainly accumulated an impressive record of holes: 153 since 18 April 2001, according to the SecurityFocus Vulnerabilities Archive. There have been some real doozies in there. For instance, last August, Microsoft issued a patch that fixed a hole that the company described this way: "It could be possible for an attacker who exploited this vulnerability to run arbitrary code on a user's system. If a user visited an attacker's Web site, it would be possible for the attacker to exploit this vulnerability without any other user action." Oh, is that all? Well, that's super - simply visit a Web page, and you're 0\/\/N3d, d00d!
A little over a week ago, the SecurityFocus Vulnerability Database reported the "Microsoft Internet Explorer Modal Dialog Zone Bypass Vulnerability," which "may permit cross-zone access, allowing an attacker to execute malicious script code in the context of the Local Zone." That was just one of the six reported so far this month - and we're only halfway through!
In fact, it's gotten so bad that now spyware creators (AKA, scumbags) are using flaws in IE to surreptitiously install the I-Lookup search bar (or one of several others) into the browser. Again, the user doesn't need to do anything - just visit a Web site or click on a URL in an email. The results? Your home page is changed, a bunch of new bookmarks show up in your Favorites, and popup windows for porn sites open constantly.
I could go on and on. Look, let's be honest with each other. We all know this is true: IE is a buggy, insecure, dangerous piece of software, and the source of many of the headaches that security pros have to endure (I'm not even going to go into its poor support for Web standards; let that be a rant for another day). Yes, I know Microsoft patches holes as they are found. Great. But far too many are found. And yes, I know that Microsoft has promised that it has changed its ways, and that it will now focus on "Trustworthy Computing." But I've heard too many of Microsoft's promises and seen the results too many times. You know, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Who's shamed when it's "fool me the 432nd time"? Who's the fool?
We're security pros, and we know the score. It's time. It's time to tell our users, our clients, our associates, our families, and our friends to abandon Internet Explorer.
A better browser: Firefox
On Monday, the Mozilla Foundation released its latest preview release of Mozilla Firefox, available for download and ready to run. As most of you probably already know, the Mozilla browser is great, but it's also a huge software project, encompassing a Web browser, an email program, an address book, a Web page editor, and much, much more. Mozilla Firefox is an effort to pull out the browsing component, resulting in a faster, more focused, and more innovative Web browser. And you know what? It's working.
I've been using Firefox for more than a year, and it's performed admirably. I've experienced a little bit of bugginess here and there - after all, it's just now getting to 0.9, with the full 1.0 release expected at the end of the summer - but on the whole it's been just fine, certainly good enough for full-time use. Its feature set is enviable: pop-up blocking, tabs, integrated search, an awesome level of customizability, and excellent support for Web standards. But it has really shone (as has the Mozilla Project as a whole, actually) in the area of privacy and security.
All software has bugs, and none is totally "secure". As has been said so many times, security is a process, not a product. So I'm quite aware that Firefox has had security issues, and will have more in the future as sure as the sun rises. But the record so far with Firefox has been positive. Security issues are not common, but when they are found, they are openly discussed and fixed quickly. This is very good, and security pros should appreciate such responsiveness.
In addition to a good track record in the past, Firefox and the Mozilla Foundation are taking a proactive approach to securing the Web browser in the future. The privacy and security settings available in Preferences are intelligent and effective, and the browser itself does not accept ActiveX controls, a key vulnerability in IE. Firefox uses XPI files to install themes, extensions, and other add-ons. Recently, new changes to the browser's handling of XPIs were introduced, including a three second countdown when installing XPIs, in order to give the user time to read the dialog box, and an optional XPI whitelist, which will allow XPI installations only from approved sites. Both are good ideas; in particular, the latter should be enabled by security pros on the machines they oversee, as it will greatly reduce the likelihood of miscreant installs (the link above implies Firefox is not implementing the XPI whitelist; Mozilla bug 240552 contravenes this).
As people who care about security - and who so often work with people who care nothing about security - it's our responsibility to spread the word about a better Web browser that does not constantly compromise the basic security of our computers and networks. Why is IE the most widely-used Web browser on the Net? It's not because of quality, and certainly not because it's better than the alternatives. In fact, IE hasn't really been improved in years, and other browsers now offer far more innovative features and capabilities. It's because Microsoft leveraged its monopoly to force IE down the throats of users. And in a case of kicking users while they're down, Microsoft has pledged to tie IE even closer to the Windows operating system, guaranteeing plenty of security problems in the future.
It's all about the marketing. Microsoft owns the desktop, so they can bundle IE with every copy of Windows. To combat that, security pros are going to have to engage in counter-marketing. Sit down with the computer users you oversee, and explain to them the security issues associated with IE, and the benefits of moving to Firefox. If you need help, a short piece entitled "Why You Should Switch to Firefox" may help. If you're feeling nervous about the not-yet-finished status of Firefox, just wait a bit longer, and then start evangelizing it, but be aware that lots of folks have been using it for quite some time, happily and successfully.
Finally, if you have to use IE, you have to use IE. But use it only with the site(s) that require it. The people reading this are smart enough to use Firefox 98% of the time, and then switch to IE when necessary.
I'm tired of vulnerabilities in Microsoft's Web browser that take over computers, install spyware and God knows what else, and ultimately cause us to spend hours cleaning up messes on the computers of clients, friends, and family. How much money, time, and energy have we all spent fixing the problems caused by IE? It's time for security pros - the folks that should know better - to start dumping IE and start promoting Firefox, a better Web browser. Enough is enough. How many times are we going to put out the fires that IE starts, only to get stomped on, again and again?