Firefox Still Tops IE for Browser Security

Opinion: The number of security holes that occur isn't as telling as how they're handled.

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.