Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Browser Web Security; Bolt on and then subsume

Category: Security

Jeremiah Grossman, our go to guy for Web security issues, recently write an interesting piece about how security gets bolted on, and slowly subsumed into the platform:

Whether improving ease-of-use, adding new developer APIs, or enhancing security – Web browser features are driven by market share. That’s all there is to it. Product managers perform a delicate balancing act of attracting new users while trying not to “break the Web” or negatively impact their experience. Some vendors attempt an über secure design – Opus Palladianum as an example, but few use it. Others opt for usability over security, such as Internet Explorer 6, which almost everyone used and was exploited as a result. Then, somewhere in the middle, is fan-favorite Firefox. The bottom line is that any highly necessary and desirable security feature that inhibits market adoption likely won’t go into a release candidate of a major vendor. Better to be insecure and adopted instead of secure and obscure.

Fortunately, the major browser vendors have had security on the brain lately, which is a welcome change. Their new attitude might reflect the realization that a more secure product could in fact increase market share. The online environment is clearly more hostile than ever, as attackers mercilessly target browsers with exploits requiring no user intervention. One need only to look at this year’s massive SQL Injection attacks that infected more than one million Web pages, including those belonging to DHS, U.N., Sony, and others. The drive-by-download malware had just one goal – compromise the browser – with no interest in looting the potentially valuable data on the sites. Of course, we still have the garden-variety phishing sites out there. This leads to questions regarding the benefits of end-user education. Users are fed up. So let’s analyze what the Mozilla and Microsoft camps have done in response.

Buffer overflows and other memory corruption issues in the most recent browsers are declining, plus the disclosure-to-patch timeline is trending properly. Firefox 3 and Internet Explorer 7 now offer URL blacklists that block phishing sites and other pages known to be delivering malware. These features are reportedly a little shaky, but it’s clearly better considering there was nothing in place before. Firefox 3 provides additional visibility into the owners of SSL certificates and make it more challenging to blindly accept those that are invalid or self-signed. IE 7 offers a nice red/green anti-phishing toolbar that works with EV-SSL to help users steer clear of dangerous websites. Overall, excellent progress has been made from where we were just a couple years ago, but before the vendors start patting themselves on the back, there’s also some bad news.

If you ask the average Web security expert if they think the typical user is able to protect themselves online and avoid getting hacked, the answer will be an unqualified “no”. While browser vendors are addressing a small slice of a long-standing problem, most people are not aware of the remaining risks of a default install of the latest version of Firefox or Internet Explorer. When visiting any Web page, the site owner is easily able to ascertain what websites you’ve visited (CSS color hacks) or places you’re logged-in (JavaScript errors / IMG loading behavior). They can also automatically exploit your online bank, social network, and webmail accounts (XSS). Additionally, the browser could be instructed to hack devices on the intranet, including DSL routers and printers. And, if that’s not enough, they could turn you into a felon by forcing requests to illegal content or hack other sites (CSRF). The list goes on, but DNS-rebinding attacks get a little scary even for me, and it’s not like we haven’t known of these issues for years.

Posted by Dion Almaer at 5:24 am
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