Web Desktop Moves Raise Security Alerts

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2004-10-22 Print this article Print

Google's phishing vulnerabilities could foretell new security threats for major Internet companies cozying up to the desktop.

A pair of phishing vulnerabilities this week targeted at Google Inc. point to the kind of new threat Web companies can face as they expand their services into desktop applications, security experts say. Because of errors in JavaScript code, Google found itself susceptible to phishing scams where an attacker could mimic its popular search site using a URL with the google.com domain, multiple researchers reported. But the potential attacks didnt stop there, according to security and analyst firm Netcraft Ltd. They also could extend to gathering information from users using the recently released Google Desktop Search application, which indexes hard-drive files, e-mails, chat sessions and Web history and can display them along with Web results.
Google confirmed Thursday that it had fixed one of the vulnerabilities, and Netcraft on Friday said Google also had fixed a second, similar flaw. Google officials didnt return requests for comment for this story.
While the vulnerabilities may be gone for now, they are not unique to Mountain View, Calif.-based Google. Google is among leading Web companies that have increasingly expanded their core services. Companies such as Yahoo Inc., Amazon.com Inc and eBay Inc. have either released lightweight desktop applications—from browser-based toolbars to desktop companions—or opened their services to developers of desktop clients. As they extend their reach to desktop applications, Internet companies are opening themselves to more malicious attacks, given the tenacity of attackers and the increased complexity of their services, said Ken Dunham, director of malicious code at iDefense Inc., a Reston, Va., security intelligence company. "The more options and software you provide, then its more likely that new avenues for exploitation will be introduced," Dunham said. "If someone wants to get into your house real bad, they can. Your job is to make sure yours is less likely to be attacked and robbed." Click here to read an interview with iDefense CEO John Watters on wholesaling threat intelligence. The potential for new vulnerabilities does not mean Web companies should stay stagnant, but rather that they must ensure that they conduct as much due diligence as possible to avoid programming errors and that they respond to threats, Dunham said. Major online players by their nature expose themselves to attackers, and none is likely to be vulnerability-free. "With all online applications, they have built-in vulnerabilities and over time, given the diligence of the hacker community, [attackers] will discover them," said Richard Stiennon, vice president of threat research at Boulder, Colo.-based Webroot Software Inc, which makes Internet security tools. "I dont think you can say that its out of the ordinary for the big, popular services to write in vulnerabilities, but its going to become more a part of Googles experience as it becomes more predominant in its space and develops desktop applications," he said. Google, for example, has increasingly added desktop complements to its search service. Along with the beta test of Google Desktop Search, it offers a Google toolbar for Internet Explorer and a Windows download called Google Deskbar for initiating Web searches outside of the browser. Next Page: Phishing for consumer information.

Matthew Hicks As an online reporter for eWEEK.com, Matt Hicks covers the fast-changing developments in Internet technologies. His coverage includes the growing field of Web conferencing software and services. With eight years as a business and technology journalist, Matt has gained insight into the market strategies of IT vendors as well as the needs of enterprise IT managers. He joined Ziff Davis in 1999 as a staff writer for the former Strategies section of eWEEK, where he wrote in-depth features about corporate strategies for e-business and enterprise software. In 2002, he moved to the News department at the magazine as a senior writer specializing in coverage of database software and enterprise networking. Later that year Matt started a yearlong fellowship in Washington, DC, after being awarded an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship for Journalist. As a fellow, he spent nine months working on policy issues, including technology policy, in for a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He rejoined Ziff Davis in August 2003 as a reporter dedicated to online coverage for eWEEK.com. Along with Web conferencing, he follows search engines, Web browsers, speech technology and the Internet domain-naming system.

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