AOL Botches Netscape Security Makeover

The security-centric Netscape 8 shipped with three critical, well-known vulnerabilities because America Online was "misinformed" by an external security vendor.

AOL on Friday blamed an unnamed third-party security vendor for the embarrassing release of its Netscape 8 Web browser with several publicly known security flaws.

Just hours after the security-centric browser shipped, the company was forced to rush out a patched version to correct the gaffe. Netscape 8 is based on the Mozilla Foundations Firefox code base, which means that security bugs in Firefox are likely to affect Netscape users.

However, three critical flaws that were fixed in the Firefox 1.0.4 update released earlier this month were never added to Netscape 8.

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about critical fixes to Firefox.

"The reason the original version did not have those patches was that we had been misinformed by an external security vendor we had retained that the Firefox 1.0.3 security issues did not affect us," America Online Inc. spokesperson Andrew Weinstein explained.

"Within hours of discovering that the vendor was not accurate yesterday, however, we addressed those issues and posted an updated version of the browser. We will always take immediate action to protect our users from security threats," Weinstein told Ziff Davis Internet News.

The three vulnerabilities, which put users at risk of remote code execution attacks, were rated "highly critical" because of the wide distribution of exploit code on security mailing lists.

The latest hiccup underscores the problem AOL faces when dealing with browser flaws inherited from Firefox. Last month, a similar issue surfaced when a Netscape upgrade was recommended for security reasons without fixes for a critical bug.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about security gaps in AOLs Netscape upgrade.

At the time, AOL said the Firefox patches would be imported into Netscape after compatibility testing.

The episode prompted a sharp rebuke from Firefox lead engineer Ben Goodger, who published exploit code on his blog to highlight one of the Netscape 8 flaws.

"If security is important to you, this demonstration should show that browsers that are redistributions of the official Mozilla releases are never going to give you security updates as quickly as Mozilla will itself for its supported products," Goodger said.

According to Weinstein, AOL "significantly expanded on the functionality of the original Firefox code," which is why an external security vendor was retained to advise on the importation of Firefox changes. "Unfortunately, that vendors analysis was not accurate."

Weinstein said Netscape developers enjoy a "close relationship with Mozilla" and monitor upcoming patches via the Mozilla distribution list. "In addition, as we have a separate development team and a separate bug-reporting system, in some cases we may learn about security issues before Mozilla does," he added.

"When we discover significant issues, either through our Mozilla relationship, internal development research, or our own bug reports, we will work to quickly push an update to our users, so they dont have to take any additional action," Weinstein said.

Netscape 8 will also be fitted with an automatic update system to allow users to be notified of patches. Under default settings, Weinstein said users will be prompted to install patches or choose to have them automatically installed.

America Online is currently testing a stand-alone browser based on Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer and not on the Netscape or Firefox engine.

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