Apple Removes Default Java Support In Browsers

Some Java security headache relief for Mac users

Apple yesterday made another bold move in its efforts to double-down on security -- by removing its Java plug-in from Safari and other Web browsers.

In Apple's Java for OS X 2012-006 1.0 release, which came on the heels of an Oracle patch for Java this week, the Java applet plug-in gets automatically uninstalled from Web browsers. If users want Java applets to run via their browser, they have to download an applet directly from Oracle. Apple also upgraded its own Java version to the latest Oracle release, Java SE 6 1.6.0_37.

"This release updates the Apple-provided system Java SE 6 to version 1.6.0_37 and is for OS X versions 10.7 or later. This update uninstalls the Apple-provided Java applet plug-in from all web browsers," Apple's Java for OS X 2012-006 advisory says. "To use applets on a web page, click on the region labeled "Missing plug-in" to go download the latest version of the Java applet plug-in from Oracle."

It has been a big year for security moves by Apple. The activity picked up in earnest after the Flashback Trojan, which was seen as a wake-up call for Mac users who assumed they were immune to malware. Flashback amassed a botnet of some 600,000 Macs, most of which were based in the U.S. Apple added a feature to Safari that detects and disables outdated versions of the Adobe Flash plug-in, for example, and halted its practices of having Java installed by default in OS X with OS Lion/10.7, among other moves.

It recently added a feature in the OS that turns off Java in the browser if it hasn't been used for some time, all amid increasing exploits and active attacks against the notoriously vulnerable Java. According to Microsoft's latest Security Intelligence Report v13, Java exploits were the second most common exploit detected in the first half of this year, just behind HTML.

Apple's update encompasses all browsers that don't include their own Java plug-in and use Apple's, says Paul Ducklin, head of technology for Sophos in the Asia-Pacific.

Security experts say Apple's dropping Java from the browser makes sense. "By ripping Java out of the browser, a lot of those malicious downloads are not going to find what they need to exploit," says Randy Abrams, research director with NSS Labs. "This was really a significant step. I'm guardedly optimistic that this means Apple is really beginning to take security more seriously."

NSS Labs last month tested Safari and other browsers for their resiliency against malicious downloads, and Safari fared poorly. Internet Explorer shined: "IE was blocking malicious downloads, with Chrome a distant second, and then Safari and Firefox," Abrams says.

[ Subtle but significant signals over the past few months from Apple indicate that the company has been doubling down on its security efforts prior to and after the Flashback Trojan attack that infected hundreds of thousands of Macintosh machines worldwide. See 4 Signs That Apple's Sharpening Its Security Game.]

The big problem with Java, of course, is that it wasn't built for security, and when you install an update, it doesn't overwrite the older versions. "Java was designed before Microsoft started its own secure-by-design life cycle. Java never had that mentality," Abrams says. "The weakest point is when you install a new version, it doesn't get rid of the older versions ... So even when you update, it leaves behind vulnerable components that can be exploited."

Sophos' Ducklin said in a blog post that Apple had struggled to keep pace with Oracle's updates to Java. Sophos has preached for some time to uninstall Java if you don't need it, especially in the browser, he says. "Keeping Java out of your browser removes the risk of hostile applets -- special stripped-down Java programs embedded into Web pages," Ducklin says.

The turning point for Apple may have been in April when it took months to fix a bug in its Java tool that Oracle and others had patched in their software February: That left the door open for the attackers behind the Flashback botnet, which exploited the Java bug in Apple's software.

Will users miss the Java browser applet? "There really isn't a highly compelling reason to have Java. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Microsoft were to follow suit," NSS Labs' Abrams says. "The top websites use JavaScript, not Java. And for sites that do use Java, there's generally an alternative for another service."

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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