Firefox Still Tops IE for Browser Security

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2005-09-29

Firefox Still Tops IE for Browser Security

Recently, there was quite a flap about a Symantec study, which showed that—horrors!—Firefox had more security holes than Internet Explorer.

But, what did Symantecs Internet Threat Report really show?

I asked Elias Levy, aka Aleph One, former moderator of Bugtrac and today, a Symantec architect. He told me that Symantec reported on the number of flaws that had been confirmed by the vendor.

"Mozilla is forthcoming about vulnerabilities," Levy said, whereas "it takes Microsoft far longer to acknowledge vulnerability."

How much longer? "In the last reporting period, the second half of last year, Microsoft had acknowledged 13 vulnerabilities. Weve now revised it to 31. The difference is that now Microsoft has acknowledged these vulnerabilities."

Thats more than double the number of problems Microsoft started with.

In the first half of this year, Symantec reported 18 high-severity vulnerabilities for the Mozilla browsers and eight high-severity holes for Internet Explorer. Were Microsoft to reveal more problems as time went on at the same rate the company did last year, the result would be 22 high-severity vulnerabilities.

The numbers really dont tell the story though. Levy and I agree on that. Its also a matter of whats done about those security holes.

Its not that Firefox, and other open-source programs, dont have security holes. They do. The key difference, from an open-source advocates viewpoint, is that everyone can see whats going on, so as soon as a problem is reported it can be fixed.

As Chris Beard, head of products for Mozilla Corp., told me, "We believe that Mozillas open and transparent development process, bug bounties, and open-source nature—which allows for virtually unlimited peer review—combine to accelerate both the time to discovery and resolution of potential vulnerabilities."

But you expect people like us to say that, dont you? Well, guess what? Symantec agrees with us.

"Mozilla can turn around on a dime," Levy said. "Open-source programmers can recognize a problem and patch it in days or weeks."

And as for Microsoft?

"If a vulnerability is reported to Microsoft, Microsoft doesnt acknowledge it for at least a month or two. Theres always a certain lag between knowing about a bug and acknowledging it," Levy said.

Some of them are a lot older than that. One hole that eEye Digital Security uncovered is more than six months old now.

Microsoft also takes its own sweet time in patching problems. After all, "Microsoft has gone to a single patch Tuesday," Levy said.

Now, there are some good reasons for that. The constant flood of Microsoft patching was overwhelming understaffed IT desks.

When theres a serious problem, I, for one, would like to have a fix sooner than later.

As Levy pointed out, "IE over the years has been integrating with many Windows subsystems. This gives hackers the ability to open the way to many vulnerabilities."

Next Page: Nothing is safe.

Nothing Is Safe

Its not that Firefox is perfectly safe.

"Mozilla has similar issues, but not the same with integration points. Its holes tend to be in the XML system that is used to create its graphical interface. Its been in these subsystems that hackers have been finding vulnerabilities," Levy said.

So, what does it all mean?

Well, first, nothing is safe. Its just that Firefox, from where I sit, tends to be safer than Internet Explorer.

You still have to patch your browser and you still have to be careful about what you do with it. It doesnt matter how up-to-date your browser is if you enter your credit card information into a bogus site.

Why do I think Firefox is better? Well, Ill let Mozillas Beard tell you what he thinks.

"Its hard to draw conclusions around the security of a given Web browser by comparing the number of vulnerabilities publicly acknowledged by vendors during an arbitrary time frame. This type of evaluation doesnt take into account the number of unpatched vulnerabilities and the speed at which critical vulnerabilities are fixed."

"Its also important to note that most software vendors report vulnerabilities differently—some group vulnerabilities together, while Mozilla reports on them separately and in deep detail as part of our open-source process," Beard said.

Faster fixes, open repairs, and more thorough reporting.

That sounds good to me. It should sound good to you.

Ziff Davis Internet Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been working and writing about technology and business since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest open-source news, reviews and analysis.

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