Internet Explorer leads in tests against social engineering threats

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer family of browsers came out on top against socially engineered threats in head-to-head tests by NSS Labs with other popular browsers.

In both raw numbers and weighted evaluations of performance, IE outperformed Google’s Chrome, Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari browsers. This is good news for users of IE, which includes large swaths of the federal government that are standardized on Microsoft software products.

But, “there is an important qualifier,” said NSS research director Randy Abrams, author of the report. “IE is far and away the overall best at what we tested for,” but that was limited to socially engineered malware (SEM) and phishing attacks. “We didn’t test for vulnerabilities in the browsers or security plug-ins.”

Although social engineering attacks can present serious threats, they represent just one part of the threat landscape and can be mitigated by non-technical means. NSS calls education the “great equalizer” in social engineering attacks. Although the Firefox and Safari browsers exhibited very little protection against socially engineered malware, they can be used safely by savvy users, Abrams said.

The NSS report tracks test results for the four browser families dating back to 2009, during which IE made a sharp improvement in blocking SEM, from around 55 percent to near 100 percent. Chrome, although blocking a little less than 70 percent of SEM, does slightly better than IE at blocking phishing sites, scoring nearly 90 percent. Both Firefox and Safari did poorly in defending against SEM although they also did well blocking phishing sites.

Figures on the market share for browsers vary, and in recent months current versions of Chrome have outpaced IE in sales or installations. In the overall installed base, however, the IE family maintains top position. According to one frequently cited source,, IE accounts for nearly 58 percent of the installed base, followed by Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera.

There are no comprehensive figures for browser share in government, but Internet Explorer is widely used. The browser’s integration with Microsoft’s Windows operating system means it is easier for administrators to manage across an enterprise and to establish governmentwide configuration policies for.

But its popularity with users also makes IE popular with researchers and hackers hunting for vulnerabilities in commercial software — and with attackers exploiting those vulnerabilities. Microsoft’s most recent Patch Tuesday security bulletin contained a cumulative update for Internet Explorer that addressed one zero-day vulnerability as well as eight previously reported vulnerabilities, all rated critical.

Abrams said that the most significant improvement in the four years since the head-to-head tests began came with Google’s Content Agnostic Malware Protection (CAMP), a reputation-based alternative to white- and black-listing sites.

“Internet Explorer has really good filtering,” he said. Chrome uses less filtering, but CAMP brings its performance against SEM up to level a comparable with IE.

Because browsers and email are gateways to a network, the security of these applications can be critical. But Abrams stressed the importance of organizations testing software in their own environments rather than relying on competitions or benchmark testing. The browser itself is only the first line of defense against Web-based attacks. In addition to educating users, multiple layers of defense are needed to catch and block malware and attacks that get through the browser.

And a new class of technology, breach detection, is coming onto the market. Three prominent current vendors are Fidelis Security Solutions, FireEye, and AhnLab, and most major security companies have plans to offer the technology.

“It’s not cheap,” Abrams said, but it could be cheaper than an undetected breach.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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