IE 8 Bugs Squashed, Claims Microsoft

Microsoft has tinkered with IE 8 and is now claiming a resolution to vulnerabilities amid a firestorm of chatter surrounding the browser's release last week.

In response to Internet Explorer 8 being compromised at a hacker's contest last week in Vancouver, Microsoft has tinkered with IE 8 and is now claiming a resolution to vulnerabilities amid a firestorm of chatter surrounding the browser's release last week.

The episode began when hackers found a hole, in a matter of minutes, at the Pwn2Own contest during the CanSecWest security conference. A previous contest -- uTest's Bug Battle browser contest held in December -- had found a beta version of IE 8 to have the fewest bugs of the browsers tested.

Speaking on the most recent controversy, Microsoft Security Response Center engineer Jonathan Ness said in a blog post that "no browser is 100 percent secure, but we are hoping if we keep adding defenses, they will be harder and harder to exploit."

At the heart of the hack at CanSecWest was an exploit that made short work of Microsoft's data execution prevention (DEP) function in IE 8 as well as its address space layout randomization (ASLR) technology. Both of these functions were, up until last week, untested -- yet highly touted among IE 8's features.

Ness pointed out that the software giant has heeded the call to action and taken the threats and proofs of concept seriously and has made adjustments to its .NET, DEP and ASLR functions.

"We heard from security researchers and exploit writers at both CanSecWest last week and SOURCE Boston the week before that," Ness wrote. "Writing exploits for Windows Vista is 'very, very hard' with all these mitigations to work around. We expect that blocking the .NET DEP+ASLR bypass will make it even harder."

Many security experts, such as Jason Miller, data team manager at Shavlik Technologies, laud Microsoft for going back to the drawing board quickly and successfully. Nonetheless, Miller said, Redmond might have been premature in its prelaunch assertions that IE 8 was nearly impervious to hackers.

"This is not the first time Microsoft has claimed their software is virtually vulnerability proof," he said. "When Microsoft released Windows Vista, they had claimed it was the safest and most secure operating system available. Within months, the first security patches were released for Windows Vista that fixed major security vulnerabilities. If you look at this latest case, Internet Explorer 8 was hacked within hours on the day it was released."

On the whole, experts were not surprised. IE 8 and its accompanying features have been public for a lengthy amount of time and gave hackers the opportunity to dig for exploits in the code.

Heavy Is the Head With the Crown
That IE 8 is getting the most scrutiny and criticism isn't necessarily because it's the worst browser. Attackers always target browsers with biggest user base. For that reason, IE represents a prime target over Mozilla's Firefox, Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari, among others.

That said, the latest IE 8 security improvements come at a critical juncture for Microsoft as it fends off the competition. Chrome, for example, was the only browser at the CanSecWest confab not to be hacked.

So who takes the title for the most secure browser? The answers are mixed, but among many security experts, IE is not at the top of the list. That realization may light a fire under Redmond's researchers to respond early and often to security threats.

"Google Chrome takes that title for the moment, due to its built-in sandbox architecture," said Wolfgang Kandek, chief technology officer of security firm Qualys. Kandek added that as for Microsoft, it will be an uphill battle. "As IE 8 turns mainstream, it will become a more attractive target for exploitation, and attackers will focus their attention on it. [Microsoft's] attention and resources will now have to be divided among three major browser versions, resulting in more, not less, work."

IE and the Security Ecosystem
Security issues aside, there remain questions of interoperability, migration from older versions and enterprise adoption that must be addressed as part of Microsoft's overall aims, said David Harley, director of malware intelligence at ESET.

"For Microsoft and IE, it's going to take several months of seeing what vulnerability researchers come up with; more time finding out why the application hasn't taken off as expected irrespective of security issues," he said, "[and] a lot more consideration of how it will work with what comes after Windows 7."

Harley added that what's happened with IE 8 lends credence to the overall issue of Microsoft "learning from its over-confidence in Vista security" and recognizing that careful coding and ideas that look good can go a long way instead of rushing out products.

Others suggest that given the early success of Redmond's Security Development Lifecycle initiative that the popular browser application should be integrated into the software giant's larger security push. After all, there are smidgens of good news, including a recent NSS Labs study claiming that said IE 8 outstrips its counterparts with a 69 percent catch rate on Web-based malware incursions.

"I'd like to see IE 8 more integrated with the entire Windows endpoint security strategies," said Chenxi Wang, principal analyst for security and risk management at Forrester Research. "There is a lot IE 8 can do in terms of shielding end users from the greater Internet threats. For instance, IE 8 can connect to some sort of Web reputation system that has information on Web sites, which can, in turn, yield a more secure browsing experience for end users."

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.

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