Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/04/google_and_ie6/

Do Google's search warrant police run IE6?

The Not Quite Anti-Microsoft

By Cade Metz

Posted in Applications, 4th February 2010 19:55 GMT

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.

Google's Redmondian Legal Dept?

Yes, Google employees use IE6 to test public web apps such as Docs, Sites, Gmail, Calendar, and Google search. As of today, these services officially support IE6, and Google runs regular tests to ensure this support. "Google engineers will use various browser versions to ensure that our services (like Google Web Search) still work well for users on these browsers," a company spokesman tells us.

But would cyber-attacks on the company's QA staff have provided access to valuable intellectual property? Are the engineers who are writing and handling code also doing QA? Are they doing both on the same machine - without, say, wrapping IE6 in some sort of virtualized sandbox?

You would think that one way or another, Google would separate the two tasks. And perhaps it does.

Google also says: "We have been upgrading employees to the latest version of Internet Explorer for some time, wherever possible. As you'd expect, a large number of employees use other browsers and browser versions."

Parsing this bit of Googlespeak isn't easy. "Other browsers"? Does that mean other than IE8? Or other than IE6? Does that "large number of employees" extend beyond QA engineers? Is it indicating that engineers across the organization - the people building its public services - also do ad hoc QA testing? Are we supposed to believe that QA isn't handled by a small, dedicated staff? Google did not respond to a request for clarification.

Some have pointed out that China - as a whole - still clings heavily to IE6. According to the latest numbers from Net Applications, IE6 accounts for half of all browsers used in the country. The assumption is that Google employees in China were using IE6 because it's a Chinese thing to do. But there's no guarantee that the December attacks hit Google's China office. Google merely said that the attacks originated from China - and even Eric Schmidt has backed away from that statement.

According to the IDG News Service, the attacks cracked a "system" used to "help Google comply with search warrants by providing data on Google users." As an anonymous Googler told IDG: "Right before Christmas, it was, 'Holy s***, this malware is accessing the internal intercept [systems].'" Presumably, such a system would be accessed from the home office in Mountain View. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps it could be accessed from anywhere.

Is this a physical system? Or is it a service that's potentially accessible from any machine inside the company? Either way, you'd think this system would only be available to the company's legal department. Surely, Google's legal department is not doing QA testing with IE6. Surely.

Whatever the case, if outside hackers are cracking Google's system for complying with search warrants - a system that taps end-user data - it only enhances fears that Google is collecting far too much information about the world's web servers. Google likes to say it cares about privacy and security. But it only takes a single hack - or a disgruntled employee - to put paid to such claims.

If we assume IDG is correct about the search-warranty system - and, well, even if we don't - one question remains. Is it possible that Google - like Orange UK - is still running internal applications that require IE6? No, you say? We asked Google if was running IE6-specific browser applications inside the company. "This is the subject of an ongoing investigation," the company says, "and we can't comment on the details." ®