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The German government is urging people to abandon Internet Explorer to avoid zero-day attacks currently circulating in the wild. Microsoft is scrambling to develop a patch to address the problem. The dirty secret, though, is the attack relies on Java being present, so Java—not Internet Explorer—is the Achilles heel of this equation.
Java was recently the target of attacks against its own zero-day vulnerabilities. However, it turned out that the vulnerabilities weren’t all that “zero-day.” Security researchers had discovered them and reported them to Oracle months earlier, but Oracle didn’t prioritize fixing the flaws until attackers also discovered them and started exploiting them.
In Oracle’s case, the Java patch created new problems. Oracle addressed the vulnerabilities being targeted by the zero-day attacks, but included a different vulnerability it was already aware of, but hadn’t yet developed a patch for.
Java was also at the heart of the Flashback malware that plagued Mac OS X users earlier this year. In Oracle’s defense, it had developed and released a patch for the targeted vulnerability, but because Apple embeds its own version of Java in its OS the ball was in Apple’s court to roll out the update, and it was slow in doing so.
The problem isn’t only or always Java, either. Adobe Flash, Adobe Reader, and other virtually ubiquitous Adobe tools are also frequently targeted in exploits and malware attacks. Adobe recently patched critical flaws in Adobe Flash, and because Microsoft embedded Flash in Internet Explorer 10 it’s Microsoft’s job to patch it. We’re still waiting for that update, so those using Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 remain vulnerable.
That doesn’t mean operating system or browser vendors are off the hook—particularly Microsoft. Internet Explorer provides plenty of opportunity for attackers, and it has been a popular target for exploits and malware. But, as Microsoft and other browser developers step up their game and create stronger, more secure browsers, attackers start poking around for the next weak spot, and that weak spot is often a third-party application.
Java and Adobe tools make headlines because they’re found almost universally on both Windows and Mac PCs, and even on Linux and many mobile devices. Java and Adobe are possibly the least of your worries, though, because they make headlines. What about the other obscure third-party apps, add-ons, and extensions you use with your browser?
Oracle and Java may not be perfect, but at least they support their products and continue to develop patches and updates. But many third-party browser tools are developed by individuals in their spare time. They may lack basic secure coding principles in the first place, and they’re much less likely to be maintained and patched if flaws are found.
Should you abandon Internet Explorer? Probably not.
You’re welcome to adopt Chrome or Firefox, or some other browser of your choice. Just don’t expect that to be a silver bullet solution that magically makes you invulnerable. No matter what browser you choose, you will still have to be diligent about keeping it up to date and vigilant about making sure the applications and add-ons you use with it don’t have flaws that expose you to attacks.