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Microsoft's WebGL claims bashed by own employee

'Scare report' pooh poohed

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It didn't take long for researchers to pooh pooh last week's advisory that claimed that hard-to-fix design flaws in the emerging WebGL 3D standard seriously imperiled end users who relied on it.

Surprisingly, the most outspoken critic of the analyses, published Thursday by UK-based Context Information Security and Microsoft's Security Research Center was Avi Bar-Zeev, himself a fellow employee of Microsoft. In a post titled Why Microsoft and Internet Explorer need WebGL (and vice-versa), he said the MSRC writeup “parrots a security scare report from a few weeks back” and questioned its connection to official Microsoft policy.

“Is WebGL actually harming your computer in any way?” Bar-Zeev asked in the post, which was published on Friday to his private blog. "I doubt that's a serious or credible claim. And, frankly, if Microsoft has taken a formal position against WebGL, no one I know got the memo.”

He went on to agree that WebGL “clearly needs a bit more assistance on the security angle,” but said the risks were no greater than those posed by any new technology added to browsers, such as ActiveX controls, which for years were among the most exploited Internet Explorer browser component until Microsoft figured out a way to lock them down.

“The way forward is to address the security issues head on, get IE the most robust implementation of WebGL on the market, and lead the industry to a new level of user experience, including NUI and rich 3D graphics, hand in hand,” he added.

Among the ways harden the technology for accelerating web-based 3D graphics is by endowing WebGL with code analysis, collaborative filtering and “hardware or OS watchdog timers,” which would shut down hostile or buggy images before they could inflict harm on the underlying computer.

A day later, Mozilla VP of Engineering Mike Shaver issued his own rebuttal that agreed that the risks posed by WebGL are no different than those posed by any new technology.

“Adding new capabilities can expose parts of the application stack to potentially-hostile content for the first time,” he wrote. “Graphics drivers are an example of that, as are font engines, video codecs, OS text-display facilities (!) and image libraries.”

Bar-Zeev and Shaver were responding to claims made by Context researchers that WebGL opens users up to new attacks by exposing memory and other functions contained in graphics cards to web developers. Coincidentally or otherwise, the MSRC critique, titled "WebGL Considered Harmful," was published the same day. It went on to conclude that Microsoft products that implemented WebGL would have a tough time passing the company's rigorous Security Development Lifecycle.

Firefox has a variety of built in countermeasures designed to lessen the effects of exploits that target WebGL, Shaver said. They include a “whitelist” of approved graphics drivers that's updated daily and an extension that mitigates attempts by malicious websites to crash end user computers.

Shaver also said that WebGL could benefit from many of the same security safeguards added to 3D technology for Microsoft's Silverlight application framework. ®

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