Making open-source browsing safe for the masses
A short conversation with Mozilla's 'chief security something or other'
Black Hat It's been an eventful month for Window Snyder. As chief security something or other at Mozilla, Snyder has shepherded two updates that fixed critical vulnerabilities in the way the browser handles uniform resource identifiers.
The most recent patch punctuated several weeks of debate over exactly who owned the vulnerability. Initially, researchers discovered that Internet Explorer, when it visited a malicious website, could cause Firefox to execute the code without first vetting it for security. Microsoft security wonks said the problem resided with Firefox.
Mozilla quickly fixed the vulnerability, but also called on Microsoft to patch IE, arguing that other Windows applications were also at risk of being tricked by IE into running malicious code. Soon after, researchers discovered that Mozilla could also pass along attack code to other programs.
We caught up with Snyder at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas and asked her to reflect on the lessons learned and to discuss other issues confronting Mozilla's security team.
Q: Has it not been an unusually active month for you and the rest of the Mozilla security team?
A: It's been unusually busy because this is a difficult problem, a difficult set of related problems and the discussion around it demonstrates how complicated the issue is. And of course we get to a certain point and that's actually how we ended up shipping 188.8.131.52. We shipped 184.108.40.206.
The issue we fixed in 220.127.116.11 we were the application accepting bad data, in this case from IE. So we put a patch in to prevent Firefox from accepting bad data and then find out a couple days later that, oh in fact we can also be the entry point.
So it's a related issue but it's a different bug in terms of the software. So we shipped 2006 to escape quotes and reduce the risk of Firefox acting as the entry point for that same scenario. Because there are two applications involved, we started off on one side and found out we could also be on the other side. We didn't realize we could be the entry point as well. So that's why we ended up shipping 2006.
All the discussion around it has to happen. Otherwise we wouldn't have found that issue. All that discussion around it is very productive.
Q: Remind us what was the debate and why was it such a difficult issue for you guys to figure out?
The debate involves whose problem is it because there are two applications involved. It doesn't actually matter whose problem it is because it needs to be fixed at both points. So that's why we shipped 2005 so quickly. We have an issue here, we need to do our part and make sure that we're not accepting bad data. So we get 2005 out and we find out we thought we were not able to be the entry point. We did not think we were able to be the entry point because of a number of different cases for different protocols that made it look like we were not going to be vulnerable to that.
Q: Microsoft's response was that this is not their problem and they have not so far as I know changed that response. What's your reaction to that?
It's a problem on both sides. If the entry point to the system in this case is the web browser and the web browser is passing data potentially to all these other applications it's nice to think that you could ask every application to prevent bad data from being accepted but in reality you need to fix it at the entry point because you can't anticipate that every application is going to be able to fix it or understand every way to prevent it. It's difficult to do it at the entry point, but something needs to happen there.
Q: What else has been going on in the last three to six months that you think is representative of where we're headed right now?
We're doing a lot of work getting Firefox 3 out. We're trying to communicate differently about security. You may have seen from the blog posts. We're experimenting with how to get out as much information to our users as possible to prevent speculation about is this the issue, is this the issue? What should we do about it?
Trying to make sure we're able to give our users as much information as we have. And sometimes that means we're going to get new information following that that changes the story. But as long as it's understood that you're looking at a work in progress, you're looking at the details of engineering, you're looking at details and analysis, you're not necessarily getting the final summary. I think that's more useful until hearing nothing until we have all of the analysis done and a fix in progress or a fix available.
So we're trying to balance giving more information earlier with the fact that it's going to change as we do further analysis and as we're building a fix.
Also for issues that are already public, there's not any more risk to our users if the world can see the discussion that we're going through as we fix it, pointing out where those bugs are so people can follow along if they're interested.
In a nutshell what are the big advances or changes in 3.0?
Anti-malware is new for 3.0. We're hoping that is going to help people make better choices about protecting themselves, visiting sites that have malware. It's basing its decisions on sites that have been identified to contain malware. This site has been identified as a potential phishing site; this site has been identified as one that has malware on it. And that of course is updated regularly.
Q:I'm interested in the perspective you have as somebody who oversees security for a product that's truly cross-platform and runs on Linux, OS X and Windows. Do you see one platform as significantly more secure or significantly less secure than another?
No. As an administrator, my response is the platform that is most secure is the platform that you know best how to secure. So being intimately familiar with the details of the operating system enables an administrator to better secure a system.
As far as a user is concerned, you're getting into the area of how easy is it to understand the security configurations, how easy is it for the general user to understand firewall settings and even complex things like managing certificates. So it comes down to usability even more than security.
And then beyond that at the platform level it comes down to most importantly security updates because there are vulnerabilities everywhere. So the most important metric I think in understanding how secure you're actually going to be is looking at how long it takes the vendor to ship a patch.
For instance this most recent patch doesn't apply to users using Linux or OS X but only if they're using Windows. This whole issue of the receiving application and the entry application, that issue doesn't exist on OS X or Linux.
At the highest level the security issue doesn't necessarily .... But at the highest level it does actually happen on all platforms in that a content might say that other content needs to be handled by a different application, or the browser handles this set of content and calls out to these other applications. So theoretically, that could happen, but each operating system handles looking for that other application differently and handles passing that information to the next application differently. ®