Is Firefox spyware's next target?

Learn where Firefox stands in the battle against spyware and the browser's future as a secure alternative for Web surfing.

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What you will learn from this tip: Where Firefox stands in the battle against spyware and the browser's future as a secure alternative for Web surfing.

Security practitioners love to trumpet Firefox as the perfect solution to the massive amount of vulnerabilities that plague Microsoft's flagship browser, Internet Explorer. It's true that IE has more than its fair share of problems. At the very least, it's an easy target for spyware. But is Firefox a better alternative for providing users a safe browsing experience?

Let's start with a broad view.

Firefox doesn't have anything close to a perfect security record. Version 1.0.1, released in February, is purported to fix 17 vulnerabilities found in the previous version (More information). The most serious of the vulnerabilities allows an exploit to trick a user into thinking he is at one site while he is actually at a spoofed site with malicious intentions.

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The latest version of Firefox is susceptible to other vectors of infestation. Today's malware generally communicates with a Web browser directly over port 80 — obviously something required by the design of Firefox — or by inserting itself as a layered service provider (LSP). Firefox decisively supports LSPs, so malware that targets Firefox and takes advantage of that attack vector will likely be successfully installed. Keyloggers can also pose a potential problem for Firefox users, as Firefox provides a layer of application programming inside of which crackers can plant nefarious code to track keyboard activity.

When we look at spyware, the picture is a little murkier. To date, I'm not aware of any officially announced spyware attacks on Firefox. But they aren't far off. There are rumors of spyware that bypasses the integrated defenses within Firefox and infects Internet Explorer indirectly. It goes something like this: You visit a site using Firefox on a machine that also has the Sun Java Runtime Environment (JRE) installed. The malware targets a bit of code at a weak spot in Firefox and then, through the JRE, begins downloading numerous packages of adware and spyware. IE, once loaded by the user, falls victim to programs. This exploit works with Firefox, Mozilla, the Avant Browser wrapper for IE and Netscape. This is bad for a couple of reasons. First, it demonstrates that Firefox is penetrable and can be used in an attack. And two, if Firefox can serve as a attack vector for malware, that's effectively just as bad as becoming infected itself.

It appears that it's possible for this type of malware to pierce the veil of security that currently resides over Firefox. The aforementioned exploit is perhaps the most direct evidence I've seen to date that Firefox is at risk for these types of attacks, but Webroot and Sunbelt Software are predicting that spyware targeting Firefox will begin appearing this year. And if we don't see spyware targeting Firefox this year, we most certainly will in 2006.

Obviously, Firefox was never the perfect solution to the problems that plague IE. But it is a safer alternative. I use it regularly and prefer it to the current version of IE. I have no doubt that Firefox was designed with security as at least a fundamental consideration, rather than an afterthought as it seems is the case with IE to the present. After all, Firefox's pop-up blocker, ActiveX control blocker and suite of privacy features are evidence of this.

It's impossible to create perfect software. As Firefox's installed base, particularly on Windows, continues to increase, it's only fair and logical to expect Firefox compromises to continue to be discovered and rectified. The ultimate advantage Firefox has — now and presumably in the future, too — is the backing of passionate, empowered developers that can create fixes to such issues much more quickly and efficiently than Microsoft can.

About the author
Jonathan Hassell, a systems administrator and IT consultant in the Charlotte, N.C. area, is the author of several books, including Hardening Windows and Managing Windows Server 2003. He regularly speaks at conferences and contributes articles on Windows administration and network security.


This was first published in July 2005

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