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What are the security risks of using an alternative browser?

A product like Internet Explorer may be the market leader, but that doesn't mean a thing when it comes to security. In this expert Q&A, application security expert Michael Cobb examines the vulnerabilities in IE and other browser contenders.

Are there significant security risks to using other Web browsers as an alternative to Microsoft Internet Explorer?

A product like Internet Explorer (IE) may be a market leader, but that doesn't automatically mean that it is the best product. Take the home videocassette tape recording market as an example. Many industry experts felt that Sony's Betamax format was technically superior to JVC's VHS recording system, yet Betamax failed to become the industry standard.

Internet Explorer has been the most widely used Web browser since 1999, reaching a saturation point of around 96% in 2002 and completely dominating its main rival Netscape. The last few years have seen a small but steady decline as surfers have adopted rival browsers such as Firefox and Opera. Since these competitors don't come preinstalled as part of a PC's operating system, they must be installed by users themselves, though an increasing number of IT departments are often installing another Web browser as part of their default client images.

Internet Explorer has always been plagued with security and privacy vulnerabilities, with malware of all descriptions exploiting bugs and flaws in its security architecture. Although IE is not alone in having exploitable vulnerabilities, Microsoft's competitors have a reputation of responding far more quickly in fixing security holes and making patches available.

It's not all bad news for Internet Explorer, though. The recently released version 7 is a major upgrade and incorporates many new or improved security features. Most of your employees will be familiar with IE's user interface, too, whereas introducing a different browser will require additional training and support. Also, nearly every Web site is designed to display and work correctly when accessed with an IE browser. If your intranet, for example, has not been designed to work with alternative browsers, users may find some features no longer work as expected when using Firefox or Opera. This could require an expensive rewrite of your Web applications. Although Internet Explorer has had terrible press over the years, hackers are launching more attacks against Firefox and Opera as they become more widely used.

For whichever browser you use, you will still need to follow safe surfing guidelines. You'll also need to protect your PC by using a firewall, as well as antivirus and antispyware scanners. Security advice on safe surfing and Windows PC protection is available from these official Microsoft, Firefox, and Opera sites.

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This was last published in March 2007

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