Browser Differences, Minutia Et Al…

Friday, September 03, 2010
Cross-Posted from Robert "RSnake" Hansen's Blog:

18 posts left…

I got an email last night from someone asking me to do a breakdown of which browser is better, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, Safari and Chrome. First of all, there’s already a pretty good reference that Michal Zalewski put together. Like anything this comprehensive, since it’s not been edited for about half a year it’s already out of date in a few ways, but it’s a great place to get started for those who want to get familiar with the internal differences between various browsers. No need to re-invent the wheel, go read it. Now, that’s the purely technical side, but there is one thing that’s wildly missing from most documents that talk about browser security.

Browser security often turns into a religious war amongst technologists, instead of thinking about it pragmatically. What are the real motives of the companies that are developing the browsers? In most cases they care primarily about market share because market share makes them money (through search engine agreements, and so on). So now you have to think about yourself and your needs. What kind of user are you? I tend to be a very security conscious person, and if you’re reading this you probably are too. I’m willing to severely degrade my usability for an increase in security, whereas most users are not. So the browser I will tend towards is one that offers me the flexibility to make those decisions for myself while still giving me enough usability to be able to do anything I need to do, when I decide to. This is why Firefox has been my personal browser of choice for years - but don’t be confused and think it’s because I think Firefox is more secure out of the box. Firefox has just as many flaws as other browsers, by default.

While security people’s needs are important, if you look at the number of people who are security folks compared to the rest of the world, we are insignificant as a percentage. That means that it is not in the browser company’s interest to focus on appeasing security people. Sure, it’s nice to have a browser that is secure, but that’s not ever going to drive the volume of users necessary to make the real revenue for their organizations - or at least that’s what the market seems to be proving. Plus most of the major browsers above tout themselves as being more secure than their competitors - so normal consumers don’t know who to believe. As such, while I think all the major browsers mentioned above have their pros and cons, none of them are designed with security first. They’re designed for a different set of users in mind (which includes security people, but it also includes our grandmas, and tweens and cousin Cletus), and that puts browser design choices somewhat at odds with security, because what does Cletus care or know about security? So that’s where plugins, addons, sandboxes, VMs, etc… come into play. It’s like wearing a condom around your browser, if you like. It gives us the ability to use the same underlying product while still protecting ourselves as much as possible.

I honestly think most browsers can be made to be very secure, if you’re willing to sacrifice all usability - not completely secure, no doubt, but far more secure than any of the major browsers above ship by default. So, it’s a little hard for me to play favorites. They each have their own security mess to clean up, so currently there is no good solution, and I don’t recommend any browsers to anyone (although you people still on IE6 really should upgrade already). The work involved in really securing your browser simply isn’t worth explaining to most people. In fact, “which browser do you use” is my least favorite question, because it’s not as simple as a single word. Boutique browsers, while interesting, don’t often have the support behind them to make them useful for a lot of the more common applications (lacking vast plugin support, etc…) although of anyone, they actually could align themselves nicely with the needs of security people. So, while I think browser security is often about minutia, we need to fully grasp the market forces at work before getting completely fed up by a constant string of functionality that only makes it less secure, instead of expecting dramatic security improvements. Or we need to pick something more obscure and assume the risks involved with a product that is not tried and true. It’s not an easy problem for us or the browser companies - I don’t envy their situation.

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