Archive for July 1st, 2008

Share of most secure browser versionsAccording to an independent study by Google Switzerland, IBM Internet Security Systems and CSG ETH Zurich, Mozilla Firefox users are the safest among web surfers (on average), because they are more likely to be running the latest and most secure version of their browser.
This research analyzed the user agent headers sent with Google search queries beetween January 2007 and June 2008 (lots of data points!), finding that more than 83% of the surveyed Firefox browsers were up-to-date. Safari scored 65.3%, Opera 58.1% and IE, not surprising, was the worst with 47.6% (it should be noticed, though, that IE6 has been considered, rightly, an "insecure version").

The most important factor in this achievement is probably Firefox's streamlined patching process, which is painless and hard to avoid: in facts, security updates are downloaded in background and proposed to the user as soon as they're ready. He can refuse installing (e.g. not to interrupt his work), but as soon as the browser restarts they get installed nonetheless.
There's obviously room for improvement. For instance, upgrading requires administrative privileges. Therefore, a warning to low-permissions users saying something like "You're running an outdated version of Firefox, please ask your administrator to upgrade" would be helpful. But even so, Firefox already shows a stunning lead over its competitors.

One of the declared limits of this study is that nothing could be said about browser plugins, universally recognized as an endless source of security pain. Even on this side, though, Firefox has some clear advantages: plugins can be disabled either manually, from the Tools|Add-Ons|Plugins panel, or automatically through a centralized blacklist. Last but not least, if you're really security minded, you can always adopt a whitelist approach.

Researcher NKTPRO does not like the way Yahoo! manages security reports.

Last year he discovered a XSS Vulnerability in Yahoo! Mail, allowing attackers to steal Yahoo! accounts. After asking for "para-legal" advice, he decided to do the right thing and go for responsible disclosure. Communication was described as "very good" in the beginning, but almost two months later it wasn't clear if the bug had been fully fixed yet, and no public acknowledgment of the problem nor credits to the reporter were given, anyway.

By contrast, Google maintains a dedicated communication channel for security researchers, is known to fix reported issues very timely and publicly thanks reporters.

Some weeks ago, NKTPRO found another XSS vulnerability affecting Yahoo! blogs, and this one was even worse: persistent, CSS-based and working with IE6, IE7 and Firefox 2 (unless NoScript was installed), it could enable attackers to build worms spreading through Yahoo! networks at a potentially very fast pace. Since our hero is apparently a nice guy, he decided to give Yahoo! a second chance, filing a responsible report again. But after waiting one month, frustrated by its counterpart's kind of expected (lack of) responsiveness, he gave up and went for full disclosure, greeted by the almost unanimous approval of his fellow sla.ckers.

After full disclosure, the one-month old bug has been fixed in 3 days.

"Full vs responsible disclosure" is a potentially endless debate, but here we can see two different "corporate styles", Yahoo!'s and Google's, eliciting different reactions from whitehat hackers and ultimately leading to different results:

  1. You can be open about your issues and your security processes, and "reward" reporters, not necessarily with money prizes, which may become dangerous when they feed an anonymous, uncontrolled vulnerability brokerage market. Most of these guys would just appreciate their name attached to your security page, for the glory and something interesting to add to their CV. In turn, you get valuable bug reports with practical proof of concepts, and a reasonable time frame to make your users safer and run regression tests.
  2. Or you can decide to discourage confidential reports, either by threatening legal consequences for "testers" or just refusing to give public credit on their findings. It can work once, but as soon as it's clear that responsible disclosure is not an option, you will be forced into tracking every each full disclosure forum out there and playing catch up in a rush because your vulnerabilities are already public and script kiddies may be busy with your users (good luck with code quality).

So, "big brother" concerns aside, do you feel safer with a Yahoo! Mail account or a GMail one?

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