By Stephen H. Wildstrom In late June, network security experts saw one of their worst fears realized. Attackers exploited a pair of known but unpatched flaws in Microsoft's Web server software and Internet Explorer browser to compromise seemingly safe Web sites. People who browsed there on Windows computers got infected with malicious code without downloading anything (see BW Online, 6/29/04, "What's the New IE Flaw All About?"). I've been growing increasingly concerned about IE's endless security problems, and this episode has convinced me that the program is simply too dangerous for routine use.
Fortunately, you're not stuck with IE as your default browser. For several weeks, I've been testing three alternatives: Mozilla 1.7 and Firefox, both free from Mozilla.org, and Opera 7.5 from Norway's Opera Software, which costs $39 if you want an ad-free version. All include useful features, such as pop-up blockers, that are lacking in the current version of IE.
Mozilla is based on code written by Netscape Communications, but I would avoid its poorly maintained cousin, Netscape 7.1. Firefox, officially still a test version, is a clean design and very fast, while Opera offers tons of features. But the chief virtue of these browsers is that they lack IE's vulnerabilities.
STILL NECESSARY. Changing your default browser is simple. Most browsers will ask, when you open them the first time, if you want them to be the default. And if you're running the latest version of Windows XP, Service Pack 1, an application on the Start menu called Set Program Access and Defaults makes switching painless.
For all of its problems, Internet Explorer isn't easy to give up. Some handy add-ons, such as the Google Toolbar, work only with IE. The Windows Update service requires the Microsoft browser. And many corporations have developed custom IE-based applications. For example, the travel-and-entertainment reporting system used by BusinessWeek works only with the Microsoft browser. So even if you default to another browser, you may still need IE from time to time.
Because IE will remain an inescapable fact of life, I hope Microsoft succeeds in its current effort to come up with a secure version. Later this summer, Microsoft will release Windows XP Service Pack 2, a major overhaul of Windows that focuses almost entirely on improving security. One component of SP2, as it's known, is a reworked browser that may make a big difference -- but it'll be many months before we know for sure.
"BREAKING INTO JAIL." The biggest security problem in IE, one that has plagued Microsoft and its customers for at least four years and is at the heart of the recent exploit, is a flaw that lets a Web site trick the browser into running an alien program in violation of its own security settings. In effect, an unknown program on a Web site is treated as though it were a trusted program on your computer. Compromised Web sites can covertly install programs ranging from nuisances that cause ad pop-ups to real threats that record your keystrokes, allowing the site to steal your passwords and account information.
Instead of one more attempt to plug the hole, SP2 drastically restricts IE's ability to run any programs without the explicit permission of the user. Even if the hole is still there, says Windows product manager Greg Sullivan, taking advantage of it "will be like breaking into jail." The hostile application would be blocked from doing any harm.
This shouldn't cause problems for most browser use, but some custom corporate applications may fail. Other features of the new IE include changes that make it hard for scammers to make phony Web sites, such as a bank's, look authentic. It also has a long overdue pop-up blocker.
In theory, the approach Microsoft is taking should solve the security problem. But we won't really know until the bad guys have had a chance to bang on SP2 for a while. For the time being, wherever possible, I'm staying away from IE. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek