I had just finished opening an account at the local bank late last week when I happened to catch a glimpse of the bank manager’s computer screen: He had about 20 Web browser windows open, and it was hard to ignore the fact that he was using Internet Explorer 6 to surf the Web.
For more than a second I paused, and considered asking for my deposit back.
“Whoa,” I said. “Are you really still using IE6?”
“Yeah,” the guy grinned sheepishly, shaking his head. “We’re supposed to get new computers soon, but I dunno, that’s been a long time coming.”
“Wow. That’s nuts,” I said. “You’ve heard about this latest attack on IE, right?”
I might as well have asked him about the airspeed velocity of an African Swallow. Dude just shook his head, and so did I.
Well, you can’t really blame the poor guy for not knowing. Just hours before, Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer looked a bit like a deer in headlights when, standing in front of the White House in a planned CNBC interview on how the Obama administration is looking to use technology to streamline its operations, he was suddenly asked about a report just released from McAfee effectively blaming a slew of recent cyber break-ins at Google, Adobe and more than 30 top other Silicon Valley firms on a previously unknown flaw in IE.
“Cyber attacks and occasional vulnerabilities are a way of life,” Ballmer said. “If the issue is with us, we’ll work through it with all of the important parties. We have a whole team of people that responds very real time to any report that it may have something to do with our software, which we don’t know yet.”
Microsoft has of course since acknowledged that a critical, unpatched security flaw indeed exists and is being exploited in targeted attacks. The software giant says it has only observed the now-public exploit code working against IE6, and that IE users should upgrade to the latest version IE8, which Microsoft says is much better insulated from the current batch of exploits.
Redmond typically releases software updates on the second Tuesday of each month (a.k.a. “Patch Tuesday), but the company said in this case customers may not have to wait until Feb. 9 for a patch for this security hole. Microsoft is eager to assure everyone that the attacks observed so far are only successful against IE6, and that in any event they have not been widespread.
Meanwhile, researchers continue to test that claim. Researcher Dino Dai Zovi Tweeted Monday that he had modified the existing exploit so that it worked on IE7, with the caveat that on Microsoft Vista systems it would only allow an attacker read access to the victim’s files (as opposed to full privileges to delete or modify system files).
In a sign that we may very soon start to see a number of hacked and malicious Web sites leveraging this flaw to install unwanted software, security firm Websense warned that it had spotted a Web site that was exploiting the IE vulnerability.
Microsoft’s assurances have not been enough for some. The governments of France and Germany have urged people to stop using Internet Explorer (Update, 1:16 p.m: The Australian government just issued a similar warning). For its part, the U.S. government is expected to issue a demarche to the Chinese government, looking for an explanation of the attacks against Google and others, which experts have described as a sophisticated and targeted attempts to steal trade industry secrets, as well as information about Chinese dissident groups.
At least one top Chinese computer security firm is urging consumers there not to wait for Microsoft’s patch, but to instead install an unofficial, stop gap fix (rough, Google translation). No doubt, if the wait drags on for an update from Microsoft, we will see the same offers from U.S. security firms and experts.
There are, of course, alternatives to IE. But then again, I’m preaching to the choir. Most of my readers already use another browser, according to the latest visitor stats for krebsonsecurity.com, compliments of Google Analytics. Here’s how my visitors break down:
Looks like krebsonsecurity.com does have some IE6 users (and at least one IE5! user). Nearly 14 percent of the visitors browsing this site with IE are using IE6: Here’s the visitor breakdown by IE version:
If you do want to keep browsing with IE (or, work at an organization like my bank which apparently doesn’t have much choice in the matter), Microsoft has some tips here on ways to leverage additional protections both in Windows and in newer IE versions.