The New Internet Explorer
I’m just starting to read about the new security features in Internet Explorer 7. So far, I like what I am reading.
IE 7 requires that all browser windows display an address bar. This helps foil attackers that operate by popping up new windows masquerading as pages on a legitimate site, when in fact the site is fraudulent. By requiring an address bar, users will immediately see the true URL of the displayed page, making these types of attacks more obvious. If you think you’re looking at www.microsoft.com, but the browser address bar says www.illhackyou.net, you ought to be suspicious.
I use Opera, and have long used the address bar to “check” on URLs. This is an excellent idea. So is this:
In early November, a bunch of Web browser developers got together and started fleshing out standards for address bar coloring, which can cue users to secured connections. Under the proposal laid out by IE 7 team member Rob Franco, even sites that use a standard SSL certificate will display a standard white address bar. Sites that use a stronger, as yet undetermined level of protection will use a green bar.
I like easy visual indications about what’s going on. And I really like that SSL is generic white, because it really doesn’t prove that you’re communicating with the site you think you’re communicating with. This feature helps with that, though:
Franco also said that when navigating to an SSL-protected site, the IE 7 address bar will display the business name and certification authority’s name in the address bar.
Some of the security measures in IE7 weaken the integration between the browser and the operating system:
People using Windows Vista beta 2 will find a new feature called Protected Mode, which renders IE 7 unable to modify system files and settings. This essentially breaks down part of the integration between IE and Windows itself.
Think of it is as a wall between IE and the rest of the operating system. No, the code won’t be perfect, and yes, there’ll be ways found to circumvent this security, but this is an important and long-overdue feature.
The majority of IE’s notorious security flaws stem from its pervasive integration with Windows. That is a feature no other Web browser offers—and an ability that Vista’s Protected Mode intends to mitigate. IE 7 obviously won’t remove all of that tight integration. Lacking deep architectural changes, the effort has focused instead on hardening or eliminating potential vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, this approach requires Microsoft to anticipate everything that could go wrong and block it in advance—hardly a surefire way to secure a browser.
That last sentence is about the general Internet attitude to allow everything that is not explicitly denied, rather than deny everything that is not explicitly allowed.
Also, you’ll have to wait until Vista to use it:
…this capability will not be available in Windows XP because it’s woven directly into Windows Vista itself.
There are also some good changes under the hood:
IE 7 does eliminate a great deal of legacy code that dates back to the IE 4 days, which is a welcome development.
Microsoft has rewritten a good bit of IE 7’s core code to help combat attacks that rely on malformed URLs (that typically cause a buffer overflow). It now funnels all URL processing through a single function (thus reducing the amount of code that “looks” at URLs).
All good stuff, but I agree with this conclusion:
IE 7 offers several new security features, but it’s hardly a given that the situation will improve. There has already been a set of security updates for IE 7 beta 1 released for both Windows Vista and Windows XP computers. Security vulnerabilities in a beta product shouldn’t be alarming (IE 7 is hardly what you’d consider “finished” at this point), but it may be a sign that the product’s architecture and design still have fundamental security issues.
I’m not switching from Opera yet, and my second choice is still Firefox. But the masses still use IE, and our security depends in part on those masses keeping their computers worm-free and bot-free.
NOTE: Here’s some info on how to get your own copy of Internet Explorer 7 beta 2.