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Do Google's search warrant police run IE6?

The Not Quite Anti-Microsoft

Website security in corporate America

According to popular perception, Google is the anti-Microsoft: a new-age outfit bent on re-architecting a flawed interwebs using nothing but open source software. The company runs its own flavor of Linux. It funded the rise of Firefox. And it eventually fashioned its own open source browser, Google Chrome.

But the reality is that Chinese hackers - or at least alleged Chinese hackers - pilfered intellectual property from the company's internal infrastructure via a hole in Internet Explorer 6, a Microsoft browser that made its debut in 2001. Certainly, Google was using IE6 to quality-test its public services - the company must ensure that, say, its search engine works properly with the aging Redmondian browser - but that's hardly an adequate excuse.

Either Google's QA testing is handled in a ridiculously haphazard fashion or its employees were running IE6 for other reasons.

In the wake of the December cyber attacks, the Mountain View Chocolate Factory says it will remove IE6 support from its public suite of online business applications. Last week, the Mountain View web giant announced that Google Docs and Google Sites would lose their IE6 support sometime after March 1, and the company is now saying that Gmail and Google Calendar will follow suit before the end of the year.

"We plan to stop supporting older browsers for the rest of the Google Apps suite, including Gmail, later in 2010," a company spokesman tells The Reg.

Presumably, there's a cause-and-effect here - the Google Apps announcements coming in response to the attack - though Google says this isn't the case. Removing IE6 support from Google Apps, the spokesman tells us, "was already planned and is being done so we can continue using the latest web technologies to bring new, innovative features to our users."

Certainly, if Google services no longer support IE6, the company can stop doing QA testing with the aging browser. But that doesn't mean the attacks hit its QA testers. Whether Google was planning to remove IE6 support from Google Apps - and of course, it was planning to - or the announcement is yet another piece of PR meant to spin the December attack in Google's favor.

There's a larger question here: was Google - the anti-Microsoft - running IE6 for reasons other than QA testing?

Little more than three weeks ago, Google told the world that the December cyber-attacks originating from China had nabbed an unspecified slice of intellectual property from the company, and Microsoft later admitted that the attacks - which also hit at least 33 other companies - exploited a then-unpatched flaw in Internet Explorer.

Though researchers have since demonstrated proof-of-concept attacks on IE7 and IE8 that used this vuln, they say the attacks outed by Google targeted IE6 specifically - not IE7 or IE8. In the days following Google's announcement, Microsoft plugged the vuln with an emergency IE patch, but even Redmond admits the aging IE6 should be avoided.

"You may have recently heard about organizations including Google recommending that people update their browsers and move off older versions, such as the nearly decade-old Internet Explorer 6," Microsoft spokesman Brandon LeBlanc recently said on the Windows Experience blog. "We support this recommendation to move off Internet Explorer 6."

According to the latest data from the research types at Net Applications, IE6 is still used by 20 per cent of all web surfers. And in many cases, these users are required to use the aging browser by their employers. Many companies still run internal applications designed specifically for IE6, including big-name tech outfits. Mega UK telco Orange, for instance, still requires IE6 in its call centers.

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