Apple Adds Anti-Fraud Safeguard to Safari

Apple Friday added anti-phishing protection to Safari, the last major browser to receive the feature that blocks known identity-stealing sites. The company also patched 11 security bugs in the program, the bulk of them specific to the Microsoft Windows version.

Released Thursday, Safari 3.2 includes a new feature, dubbed "Fraudulent sites" in the browser's options listing. However, Apple did not update either Safari's help file or its online documentation with any additional information about the tool, including how it works, what database it uses to "blacklist" sites and whether it relays URLs back to Apple for checking or relies on a locally-stored database.

The Safari 3.2 end-user licensing agreement (EULA) does not include any mention of the new tool, and Apple did not respond to questions about the feature.

Apple nearly pulled the trigger on an anti-phishing add-in in 2007, when it had planned to incorporate it into Safari 3.0. However, it dropped the feature prior to releasing the browser as part of the upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5, also known as Leopard, in October 2007.

Earlier this year, PayPal, eBay Inc.'s payment service and the frequent target of fraudsters, announced it would block browsers that don't include anti-phishing features from accessing its site. Of the then-current major browsers, only Apple's lacked such a feature. A few days later, however, PayPal backed off, saying it had no intention of keeping Safari users from its site.

At the time, PayPal also said that the lack of support for Extended Validation (EV) certificates, a more regulated version of SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificates, would bar a browser from its service as well. EVs are meant to reassure users that the online site is legitimate; browsers that support them typically signal that the site is safe by a change to the address bar.

Apple's announcement that it had added support for EVs was cryptic: The only mention was in the typically-terse description of the 3.2 update, which said "features ... better identification of online businesses."

Unlike rival browsers such as Mozilla Corp.'s Firefox and Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer, however, Safari doesn't modify the address bar when it reaches a site with an EV certificate. Instead, it adds a small button to the upper right of the window that names the company owning the certificate. A small locked padlock symbol appears beside the button. Clicking on the button brings up details on the certificate.

Apple also patched 11 vulnerabilities in the Windows version, and four in the Mac OS X edition, with the upgrade to Safari 3.2.

According to the accompanying advisory, a majority of the bugs -- eight out of the 11 in Windows, two of the four in Mac OS X -- were pegged with the phrase "arbitrary code execution," Apple's way of saying that the vulnerability is critical and could be exploited by hackers to hijack a PC or Mac.

Several of the Windows-specific vulnerabilities were due to poor handling of various image formats -- including those with .tif and .jpg file extensions -- by the browser, while others could be used to steal personal information or crash the computer.

Three of the bugs, all pertinent only to the Mac edition, were WebKit vulnerabilities that had been fixed previously by the open-source project's developers. Safari, like Google Inc.'s Chrome, uses the WebKit engine.

Of the three WebKit-related flaws, one was attributed to Billy Rios and Nitesh Dhanjani, researchers who work for Microsoft and Ernst & Young, respectively. Of the two, Dhanjani is probably better known; earlier this year, he disclosed the so-called "carpet bomb" threat to browsers in general, Safari in particular.

After first denying that the threat was a security issue, Apple did a turn-about and patched its browser in mid-June. Mozilla and Google soon followed suit.

Safari 3.2 can be downloaded from Apple's site, while existing installations can be updated using the browser's built-in update feature, or on Windows, by running the separate Apple Software Update utility.

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