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Web browsers face crisis of security confidence

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Whatever its faults, Firefox wasn't the browser that brought us ActiveX and therein lies the key reason it has stood up so well when compared to IE over the years. Last year, there were some 339 vulnerabilities in one or more ActiveX controls, according to security bug tracker Secunia. That compares with about 35 flaws in QuickTime, 12 in Java, 12 in Flash and 6 in various Firefox extensions. What's more, ActiveX bugs tend to bite harder because Microsoft designed ActiveX to have much greater control of the underlying operating system than Java and most other browsing components. As a result, ActiveX for years became a cornerstone of the underground malware industry.

"Too many ActiveX controls are of poor quality and haven't been through a quality assurance process and security audit before they're published," Thomas Kristensen, Secunia's CTO says. "A lot of them are inherently insecure and of very poor quality, which makes it easy for the bad guys to find vulnerabilities."

Microsoft choked off much of the most pernicious ActiveX threats four years ago with the release of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, which made it much harder for miscreants to use the controls to silently install malicious code on end users' machines. And changes in IE 8 previewed here (click "Peace of Mind," then "Browser-Based Exploits") promise users "greater control over who can install Microsoft ActiveX controls and on which sites the ActiveX controls are allowed to run." (The site promises a host of other improvements, including data execution prevention that is turned on by default and features known as Cross Domain Request and Cross Document Messaging to ward off attacks on web servers.)

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In addition to largely taming the ActiveX shrew, Microsoft over the last few years has adopted a tireless security posture that places a high premium on communication and patching vulnerabilities within a reasonable amount of time, and that's gone a long way to making people safer.

"IE 7 is a very secure browser," Jim Hahn, a member of the IE team says. "A machine that is fully up-to-date is very secure, and we feel very confident about that."

Last page: As the net burns, browser makers fiddle

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