Perimeter
3/3/2009
02:03 PM
Sara Peters
Sara Peters
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Peter Parker's Uncle Ben Would Not Approve

Note to Web browsers: With great power comes great responsibility.

Note to Web browsers: With great power comes great responsibility.Last week both Apple and Microsoft announced some heartening news for anyone looking for a more secure browser. More about this news below. While thinking about browsers--as I geekily, frequently am--I read the column Melih Abdulhayoglu wrote a few weeks ago at SecurityFocus, called "Don't Blame the Browser." He does not suggest that browser developers should toss up their hands and forget security, but he does seem to say that we should just do a better job with other preventative security measures, and let the browsers off the hook. From his column:

    Browsers are meant for you to browse. Not to secure your computer. Not to protect your files against prowlers on the Web. Not to stop attacks from sundry viruses and Trojans.

Abdulhayoglu is right, of course. Security is not a browser's job. Nonetheless, I must point to the timeless advice of Spiderman's Uncle Ben: "With great power comes great responsibility."

Peter Parker didn't plan on getting bitten by a radioactive spider, and he had no obligation to use his Web-slinging and Spidey Sense abilities for fighting crime. He didn't have to choose to suffer the burden of a secret identity and a moonlighting career that paid jack squat. Crime-fighting was not his duty, per se.

So Peter Parker could just sit back (atop the peak of the Empire State Building, perhaps) and watch countless innocents have their purses stolen by hooligans, or worse... but instead, he realizes he's got special power to make the streets safer, and so he voluntarily chooses to become Spiderman, and he dedicates himself to using his power for good.

What I'm saying is that browsers should be more like Peter Parker. There are millions of Web sites, millions of plug-ins and JavaScript apps, being created and used by billions of people who have very little power to protect themselves. Meanwhile there are just a few Web browsers, all of which are in a position to protect users from both Web-borne attacks on their local machines and from entirely Web-based attacks. If just that small group of browsers took up the mantle of Web Justice League (I know, I know, I'm mixing my Marvel and DC references), they could make an enormous improvement on Web security. In the October Alert, we made a secure Web browser wish list, to tell browser developers where to start.

The good news is that some of them are granting our wishes and showing little signs of Spidey-like heroism. Microsoft is already making improvements with Internet Explorer 8 (now in beta), and last week they announced that they're working on "Gazelle," a new browser that would be an even more secure alternative to IE8. From an article on CSO:

    Gazelle is different from some other browsers in that it considers each part of a Web site, such as iframes, subframes and plug-ins, as separate elements. Sometimes those elements can pull in malicious content from other Web sites. Google's Chrome runs a Web page and its elements in a single process.

    The researchers say that their approach improves reliability and security because processes can't interact with the underlying system and are mediated by system calls supplied by the browser kernel.

    ...

    Gazelle goes far to separate elements of a Web page that come from the same registrar-controlled domain. For example, content from Ad.datacenter.com and User.datacenter.com would be considered separate, whereas Chrome "puts them into the same site instance," the paper said.

This system basically uses an alternative to the Same Origin Policy--and that's a good thing--because your browser will be able to trust a Web site, but not necessarily trust everything running on that Web site. Further, this bit about "processes can't interact with the underlying system and are mediated by system calls supplied by the browser kernel" refers to the fact that the Gazelle browser uses a modular architecture, which is key if you want to head Web-borne attacks off at the pass. Both these features were on our wish list.

One thing I hadn't thought of was this neat little feature: "...an attacker creates a Web page, intending to get a user to click on a particular area of the page. But just before the expected click happens, an overlay appears that could be used to initiate an attack. Gazelle will ignore any clicks in newly exposed screen areas for about one second until a user can see the new screen areas."

I believe this should protect against certain methods of "clickjacking" but I'm double checking on this.

Apple is also making some (overdue) improvements to Safari. Nothing revolutionary here--anti-phishing, etc.--but at least Safari is beginning to take basic security seriously and making strides to close the gap between it and other browsers. Sara Peters is contributing editor to Dark Reading and editor-in-chief of Enterprise Efficiency. Prior that she was senior editor for the Computer Security Institute, writing and speaking about virtualization, identity management, cybersecurity law, and a myriad of other ... View Full Bio

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