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Perimeter

12/3/2008
02:26 PM
John H. Sawyer
John H. Sawyer
Commentary
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Alternative Web Browsers: Do They Have A Fighting Chance?

How many Web browsers can you name? Besides the most common -- Internet Explorer (IE), Firefox, and Safari -- I know of Google's Chrome, Opera, and some Linux-specific browsers. That's it. So I was interested to read Computerworld's article ("Too good to ignore: 6 alternative browsers,") which gives a good overview of six alternative browsers (really five if you don't count separa

How many Web browsers can you name? Besides the most common -- Internet Explorer (IE), Firefox, and Safari -- I know of Google's Chrome, Opera, and some Linux-specific browsers. That's it. So I was interested to read Computerworld's article ("Too good to ignore: 6 alternative browsers,") which gives a good overview of six alternative browsers (really five if you don't count separate PC and Mac versions of Opera). Still, while it's cool to know there are so many options out there for browsing the Web, I'm left wondering: How secure are these other offerings?When you're using one of the "Big 3" browsers (IE, Firefox, Safari), you know they're being used by millions of people daily and have undergone considerable scrutiny by their respective vendors. Also, security researchers are looking closely at them because they know those are the popular browsers that would cause the most damage if they were exploitable. This is a similar argument as to why hardly any malware exists for Mac OS X compared with Windows. Market share.

An argument also can be made that security is not so bad since some of the alternatives share common code (to some extent) with one of the Big 3, such as Safari and Google Chrome using WebKit, or Firefox and Camino using the Mozilla Gecko rendering engine. Unfortunately, this isn't the case; vulnerabilities cropped up in Google Chrome, for example, because it was using an older version of WebKit.

What's more interesting to me is how open corporate environments are to alternatives. Can any of them gain a foothold because some CEO read an article about Google and Chrome in Forbes? I guess it's a possibility, but I think it's highly improbable that any of them could make a dent, and for two reasons.

The first is that ERP companies developing solutions like PeopleSoft don't have the time or resources to try and make sure their Web interfaces work in a half dozen or more Web browsers. The second is that security professionals and sysadmins will (or should) start screaming that patch management is going to become nightmarish. Sure, some of them may include auto-update mechanisms, but how many of your users have administrative rights on their desktops to let those updates install?

Of course, there will be some exceptions. I know many Web designers will want to have some of the alternatives so they can see what their sites look like in other browsers, but management won't want them investing much time in making sure they're uniform across ALL the options. Security pros and sysadmins will definitely need to keep an eye on this as more users learn about the options and start asking. It's probably a good time to start researching so you can respond appropriately.

John H. Sawyer is a Senior Security Engineer on the IT Security Team at the University of Florida. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are his own and do not represent the views and opinions of the UF IT Security Team or the University of Florida. When John's not fighting flaming, malware-infested machines or performing autopsies on blitzed boxes, he can usually be found hanging with his family, bouncing a baby on one knee and balancing a laptop on the other. Special to Dark Reading.

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