Why I'm Staying Away From Internet Explorer

The browser's endless security woes make it dangerous to use

In late June network security experts saw one of their worst fears realized. Attackers exploited a pair of known but unpatched flaws in Microsoft's (MSFT ) Web server and Internet Explorer browser to compromise seemingly safe Web sites. People who browsed the sites using Windows computers -- without downloading anything -- were infected with malicious code. I've been increasingly concerned about IE's endless security problems, and this episode has convinced me that the program is simply too dangerous for routine use.

Fortunately, you are not stuck with IE as your default browser. For several weeks I have been testing three alternatives: Mozilla 1.7 and Firefox, both free from Mozilla.org, and Opera 7.5 from Norway's Opera Software, which costs $39 if you want an ad-free version. All include useful features, such as pop-up blockers, that are lacking in the current version of IE. Mozilla is based on code written by Netscape Communications (TWX ), but I would avoid its poorly maintained cousin, Netscape 7.1. Firefox, officially still a test version, is a clean design and fast, while Opera offers tons of features. But the chief virtue of these browsers is that the they don't share IE's vulnerabilities.

Changing your default browser is simple. Most browsers will ask, when you open them the first time, if you want them to be the default. And if you're running the latest version of Windows XP, Service Pack 1, there's an application on the Start menu called Set Program Access and Defaults that makes switching painless.

FOR ALL OF ITS PROBLEMS, Internet Explorer isn't easy to give up. Some handy add-ons, such as the Google Toolbar, work only with IE. The Windows Update service requires it, and many corporations have developed custom IE-based applications. The travel-and-entertainment reporting system used by BusinessWeek, for example, works only with the Microsoft browser. So even if you default to another browser, you may still need IE from time to time.

Because IE will remain an inescapable fact of life, I hope Microsoft succeeds in its current effort to come up with a secure version. Later this summer the company will release Windows XP Service Pack 2, a major overhaul of Windows that focuses almost entirely on improving security. One component of SP2, as it is known, is a reworked browser that may make a big difference -- but it will be many months before we know for sure.

The biggest security problem in IE -- one that has plagued Microsoft and its customers for at least four years and is at the heart of the recent exploit -- is a flaw that lets a Web site trick the browser into running an alien program in violation of its own security settings. In effect, an unknown program on a Web site is treated as though it were a trusted program on your computer. Compromised Web sites can covertly install programs ranging from nuisances that cause ad pop-ups to real threats that record your keystrokes to steal passwords and account information.

Instead of making one more attempt to plug the hole, SP2 drastically restricts IE's ability to run any program without the explicit permission of the user. So even if the hole is still there, says Windows product manager Greg Sullivan, taking advantage of it "will be like breaking into jail." The hostile application would be blocked from doing any harm. This shouldn't cause problems during most browser use, but some custom corporate applications may fail. Other features of the new IE include changes that make it tougher for scammers to make phony bank Web sites look authentic. There will also a long-overdue pop-up blocker.

In theory, the approach Microsoft is taking should solve the security problem. But we won't really know until the bad guys have a chance to bang on SP2 for a while. For the time being, wherever possible, I'm staying away from IE.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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