Because of the constant changes, it's hard to truly evaluate any given browser on any given day. Even so, there are certain key elements that distinguish one browser from another in terms of security. Here's how two of them, Firefox 4 and Internet Explorer 9, measure up:
Firefox 4 is packed with security features aimed at resolving common, but difficult-to-avoid attacks such as cross site scripting (XSS), redirects from secure HTTPS webpages to plain old HTTP, and click-jacking.
This beats the heck out of comparing strings from browser and server in the remote hope of preventing XSS. Not only is the string approach akin to matching needles in thousands of remote haystacks, when it did deliver a finding, that finding was usually wrong. Developers often turned off such attempts, as found in IE 8's X-XSS-protection, out of sheer frustration.
However, CSP, though far more efficient, can also give a false positive reading if the website developer fails to sufficiently cover all the features with its policy. Still, CSP beats the string approach hands-down.
Other improvements are equally attractive from a harder to track user-agent header to a do-not-track feature that requires a simple opt-in to enable. However, the do not track feature works on an honor system: the site is notified of your desire for privacy but they don't have to comply with your request.
The strict transport security (STS) feature allows the user to force an HTTPS connection to user chosen sites. For example, the user can force an HTTPS connection-only to Facebook or other social sites thereby avoiding SSL strip attacks on those pages.
Firefox 4 also hides visited links from a hacker. The user still sees a visited link change color but the hacker doesn't. The CSS tweak hides your link viewing in the browser history from prying eyes.
Internet Explorer 9 (IE9)
IE9, says Microsoft, blocked 99 percent of socially engineered malware attacks. If the claim is true, then that's five times more than Firefox. However, both Mozilla and Google contest the interpretation as a definitive competitive edge for IE9 since the type of malware the finding applies to is not a common threat.
It is important to remember too that IE is targeted more often than Firefox simply because of economies of scale. The bad guys know that even people who use Firefox or Chrome often also have IE on their computer and use it at least occasionally. Therefore it makes tons of economic sense for hackers to target it over the competition.
In any case, IE9 is a significant upgrade from previous versions. It appears to run faster too, which is helpful.
- Active X can be easily filtered and the user can choose to block or proceed accordingly.
- Tracking protection is a new feature that enables users to control what they share. The Tracking Protection List, published by partners PrivacyChoice, TRUSTe, Abine and Adblock Plus, notifies companies if users don't want to be followed. However, just like with FireFox 4, the do not track feature works on an honor system; the site is notified of your desire for privacy but they don't have to comply with your request.
- The download manager has an integrated SmartScreen malware protection feature. The Smartscreen Application Reputation cuts down on the aggravation factor as much as it does on security threats. It greatly reduces the number of warning prompts by dropping them entirely from frequently visited sites and warns only when the likelihood of malware is high. The "pinning" feature also helps as it allows users to "pin" frequently-visited and trusted sites to the browser toolbar, which then runs them in their own session. The pinning feature helps prevent HTTPS to HTTP redirects.
- IE9 also has improved memory protection to prevent hackers from exploiting memory related vulnerabilities in the browser or any of its add-ons.
And the winner is ...
As of this point, security is no longer a major deciding factor in which browser you should use since both have seriously beefed-up protection. Not that you're totally safe from hackers, but at least these two browsers have finally bolted the doors and locked the windows.
A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).