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ActiveX security faces storm before calm

MS responds to more Moore flaws

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Moore separated his work analysing ActiveX for flaws because he created the tool himself and he wanted to give Microsoft a chance to fix the issues before releasing the fuzzer, he said.

"You have to really know what you're fuzzing for to cover all the possible vulnerabilities," Moore said.

A major problem with ActiveX is that the components, especially those accessible through Internet Explorer, place the PC's user in a critical role as gatekeeper for the security of the system. While other models, such as Java, may allow for less interactivity and cool features, they deemphasise the users security role, Websense's Hubbard said.

"ActiveX passes the security process to the end user, as opposed to being handled within the language," he said. "In Java, there are certain things that you can't do, as opposed to ActiveX, which allows you to do them, if the users says OK."

The result is that many security-conscious system administrators and users shy away from the software. Source-code security firm Fortify, which looks to its customers for where to focus its efforts, has rarely looked at ActiveX because its customers are wary of the security problems posed by the software.

"I'm pretty sure what we would find - a lot of problems," Fortify chief scientist Brian Chess said. "You take the problems of Javascript and multiply it by a large number."

To minimise the danger of attack in the future, Microsoft plans to disable by default all but the most commonly used ActiveX controls in its coming browser, Internet Explorer 7. Moreover, the company will also use more informative warnings to users before allowing them to install new ActiveX controls, a feature the software giant calls ActiveX Opt-in.

"ActiveX Opt-in removes the default ability for malicious websites to load any ActiveX control as a means to attack a system," Microsoft said in a statement sent to SecurityFocus. "When a website attempts to load a control IE has never used before, the information bar will be displayed to advise the users a trust decision is required."

The software giant said that users who want more security now can upgrade to the third beta version of IE 7. The final version will be pushed out as a high-priority update via the company's Automatic Updates distribution channel in the fourth quarter of this year. Users will be notified that the update is available can can make a choice of whether to download it. Microsoft is also making a policy tool available for companies that want to block the notification to employees.

Upgrading to Internet Explorer 7 will require that the Windows user authenticate their system using Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage antipiracy tool.

The security improvements in Internet Explorer will make the latest flaws found by Metaploit's Moore go away, the security researcher said.

"Assuming everyone switches to IE 7, the easiest way to load ActiveX controls go away," he said. "So these issues pretty much go away with Internet Explorer 7."

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus

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