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Understanding the Web browser threat: Examination of vulnerable online Web browser populations and the "insecurity iceberg"

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  • SDX Security

Abstract and Figures

The Web browser Insecurity Iceberg represents the number of Internet users at risk because they don’t use the latest most secure Web browsers and plug-ins to surf the Web. This paper has quantified the visible portion of the Insecurity Iceberg (above the waterline) using passive evaluation techniques - which amounted to more than 600 million users at risk not running the latest most secure Web browser version in June 2008.
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Understanding the Web browser threat:
Examination of vulnerable online Web browser
populations and the "insecurity iceberg"
Stefan Frei1, Thomas Duebendorfer2, Gunter Ollmann3, Martin May1
1Communication Systems Group, ETH Zurich, Switzerland
2Google Switzerland GmbH
3IBM Internet Security Systems, USA
Contact: insecurity-iceberg@ee.ethz.ch
http://www.techzoom.net/insecurity-iceberg
ETH Zurich Tech Report Nr. 288
1. INTRODUCTION
In recent years the Web browser has increasingly become
targeted as an infection vector for vulnerable hosts. Classic
service-centric vulnerability exploitation required attackers to
scan for and remotely connect to vulnerable hosts (typically
servers) in order to exploit them. Unlike these, Web browser
vulnerabilities are commonly exploited when the user of the
vulnerable host visits a malicious Web site.
Attacks against Web browsers depend upon malicious con-
tent being rendered by the appropriate built-in interpreter (e.g.,
HTML, JavaScript, CSS, etc.) or vulnerable plug-in technol-
ogy (e.g., Flash, QuickTime, Java, etc.) [1, 2]. Vulnerabilities
lying within these rendering technologies are then exposed to
any exploit techniques or malicious code developed by the at-
tacker. Vulnerability trend reports have indicated that remotely
exploitable vulnerabilities have been increasing since the year
2000 and reached 89.4% of vulnerabilities reported in 2007
[3]. A growing percentage of these remotely exploitable vul-
nerabilities are associated with Web browsers.
Profit motivated cyber-criminals have rapidly adopted Web
browser exploitation as a key vector for malware installation.
Due to the methodology of exploiting Web browser vulner-
abilities and the unpredictable browsing patterns of typical
users, for widespread infection of vulnerable hosts the crim-
inals must seed a mix of popular and high-traffic websites, or
incentivize users through email spam, with URLs directing po-
tential victims to Web servers hosting their malicious content.
The former method is commonly known as drive-by down-
load, where ”drive-by” refers to the fact that Web browsers
must initially navigate to a malicious page and ”download”
refers to the covertly downloaded and executed malware - typ-
ically trojans.
As popularity of this attack vector has blossomed, there have
been frequent reports of hundreds of thousands of Web sites
succumbing to mass-defacement [1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8] - where the
”defacement” often consists of an embedded iframe. These
iframes typically inlcude content from servers hosting mali-
cious JavaScript code designed to exploit vulnerabilities ac-
cessible through the user’s Web browser and subsequently to
initiate a drive-by malware download. These mass-defacements
Internet
users
at risk due to
not updating to
most secure Web
browser and plug-ins
not latest most
secure browsers
browsers with built-in or
plug-in vulnerabilities
Opera 5 million
Safari 17 million
Firefox 38 million
Estimated:
Internet
Explorer
577 million
Figure 1: The Web browser Insecurity Iceberg represents
the number of Internet users at risk because they don’t use
the latest most secure Web browsers and plug-ins to surf
the Web. This paper has quantified the visible portion of
the Insecurity Iceberg (above the waterline) using passive
evaluation techniques - which amounted to more than 600
million users at risk not running the latest most secure Web
browser version in June 2008.
cause once-benign sites to turn against their visitors. Even
pages owned by institutions like the United Nations (un.org),
the UK government (.gov.uk) and many others have succumbed
to such attacks. In 2007, Google uncovered more than three
million malicious Web addresses (URLs) that initiate drive-by
downloads [9].
While several studies and reports have focused upon the scale
of the mass-defacements and malicious content being served
by compromised servers, none have provided quantitative ana-
lysis of the most critical component in drive-by download at-
tacks - the number of users likely to become victims of the
attack due to the use of insecure Web browser technologies.
The analysis presented in this paper is based on the large
global user base of Google’s Web search and application sites.
By measuring the lower bounds of insecure Web browsers
used to daily surf the Internet, we provide new insights into
the global vulnerable Web browser problem. To capture the
extent of this security problem, we introduce the notion of the
"Insecurity Iceberg" (see Figure 1) and estimate the number
of users worldwide relying on a Web browser version differ-
ent from the latest most secure version or vulnerable plug-ins,
which could result in a host compromise.
Following this detailed analysis, we identify and discuss a
number of current and future protection technologies that can
help mitigate the escalating threat to vulnerable Web browsers.
2. DATA SOURCES AND METHODOL-
OGY
As with all studies of Internet threats and trends, the analysis
and conclusions reached are dependent upon the breadth and
scope of the data. While statistics concerning Web browser
market shares can be found in many locations, we believe the
data sources used for this detailed analysis of vulnerable Web
browsers are unique in both scope, detail and quality.
The data used to measure the worldwide vulnerable Web
browser population within each browser type was provided
by Google, and is a subset of non-personally identifiable data
accumulated by Google’s search and Web application server
logs from around the globe; processed daily between January
2007 and June 2008. With Google’s search queries coming
from more than 75% [10, 11] of Internet Web search users,
our measurements of Web browser proliferation are of a truly
global scale.
Our purpose of analysis was to establish the global scale of
Web browser-based insecurity. A critical difference between
our analysis and seemingly related ”browser market share”
studies [12, 13, 14, 15] is the use of both major and minor
version information and the correlation with known security
patch release dates for each Web browser type. Any discrep-
ancies between browser version share numbers can likely be
attributed to sample sizes and degree of global coverage. Key
points in our data sampling and analysis methodology are as
follows:
With each page request a Web browser typically imparts
information such as its type,version, and operating sys-
tem in the HTTP USER-AGENT header field [16] which
is recorded in most common Web server logs. Using
this large data set, we calculated the major version us-
age share within Firefox, Opera, Safari, and Internet Ex-
plorer users for each day.
Unlike ubiquitous Web browser "market share" statis-
tics, we were not interested in the number of page
hits or visits. Instead, we measured the number of
unique Web browser installations active on a given
day.
Where applicable, minor version information was ob-
tained from the USER-AGENT data to help enumerate
the specific patch-level of the Web browser.
This method of analysis allowed for unbiased mea-
surements of detailed browser patch level at a global
scale, without requiring interaction with the user
and is the first global scale measurement of pop-
ular browser patch dynamics.
The USER-AGENT header fields for Firefox, Sa-
fari, and Opera contain both major and minor ver-
sion information, whereas Internet Explorer only
contains the major version. Therefore, it was not
possible to enumerate the patch level of Microsoft
Internet Explorer using this method beyond its ma-
jor release numbers.
Each Web browser was counted only once per host, per
day. The default Google cookie system served as a uni-
queness identifier for the first visit of each actively used
browser exactly once per day - and helped reduce over-
counting due to multiple visits.
For reasons of conciseness, we have taken week-day
statistics as the data-points for graphing and compari-
son purposes.
We measure the dynamics of major and minor software
version updates and compare results with the mecha-
nisms available to carry out the updates. We correlate
our results with measurements of Secunia’s Personal Soft-
ware Inspector [17] to estimate the global population of
Internet users not using the most recent version of their
browser. Our measurement does not include the addi-
tional risk exposure of unpatched browser plug-ins or
0-day exploits.
We acknowledge that there are multiple opinions con-
cerning business usage and application compatibility rea-
sons for not upgrading to a current version of a Web
browser technology (in particular applications that have
embedded Internet Explorer objects), but do not believe
that those opinions have a bearing on the methodology
used to establish the insecurity of the global Web browser
problem. While not using the latest version represents a
risk, it may be reduced or mitigated through the use of
complementary security measures.
At no time during this study did the authors of this paper
have any access to personally identifiable information. The
data sets analyzed used a unique cookie value (when avail-
able) to merely identify a unique browser visit, and the pro-
vided data could not be used to identify an individual or their
browsing patterns either directly or through correlation.
Google takes privacy of its users very seriously and automa-
tically expires cookies after a limited period of time. For per-
sonalized services like Gmail or Google calendar where state
information is required, cookies are used to keep the log-in
status, but are optional when utilizing Google’s Web search.
3. THE INSECURITY ICEBERG OF IN-
TERNET USERS AT RISK
3.1 Measurement of Browser Versions in
Daily Use
In the face of a more hostile environment, most commercial
vendors of Web browser technologies have made progress over
recent years in making their products more resilient to com-
mon security threats - dropping insecure features and strength-
ening others. Their development life-cycles have matured and
typically encompass multiple levels of secure design and vul-
nerability testing, as well as new processes for promptly han-
dling externally discovered flaws. As such, most updates and
patches for existing Web browser technologies (both the core
browsing engine and third-party plug-ins) increasingly incor-
porate new and vital security fixes - a trend that is expected to
continue in to the future.
For years the software industry has promoted one security
best practice over all others: always use the most recent ver-
sion of the installed software and instantly apply the latest
patches. With today’s hostile Internet and drive-by download
attack vectors, failure to apply patches promptly or missing
them entirely is a recipe for disaster; exposing the host to in-
fection and possibly subsequent data disclosure or loss.
Analysis of Web browser USER-AGENT information from
the Google data set, combined with a catalogue of known vul-
nerabilities and subsequent security patches associated with a
particular update, enabled us to estimate the lower bound of
the number of Web browsers in use repeatedly failing to apply
patches, many of which fixed built-in browser vulnerabilities.
In mid June 2008, the most commonly encountered browser
technologies used to navigate the Internet were Microsoft’s In-
ternet Explorer (IE) 78%, Mozilla’s Firefox (FF) 16%, Ap-
ple’s Safari (SF) 3%, and Opera (OP) 1% according to The-
Counter.com [15]. The combined usage share of these four
browsers was 98.6%, dominated by Internet Explorer and Fire-
fox as can be seen in Table 1.
Browser Type IE FF SF OP Total
Share of browsers
in daily use in per-
cent
78.3 % 16.1% 3.4% 0.8% 98.6%
Browsers in daily
use in million (on
the Internet world-
wide)
1103 227 48 11 1389
Table 1: Percentage of Web browsers by type according to
TheCounter.com averaged over Feb 1st to June 18th, 2008.
The absolute worldwide user counts were derived from the
global Internet user count of 1,408 billion users.
3.2 Most secure browser
In this section, the most secure browser designates the lat-
est official public release of a vendor’s Web browser at a given
date. Beta versions are not considered an official public re-
lease.
We used the most recent major versions of Internet Explorer
7 (IE7), Firefox 2 (FF2), Safari 3 (SF3) and Opera 9 (OP9)
as the benchmark version for our most secure Web browser
measurements. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer version 6, inde-
pendent of its patch level, is not considered the most secure
version of Internet Explorer by Windows expert Brian Liv-
ingston [18] and even Microsoft calls IE7 ”an extremely im-
portant update from a security perspective” over IE6 [19] and
states ”There are dangers that simply didn’t exist back in 2001,
when Internet Explorer 6 was released to the world. Internet
Explorer 7 makes surfing the web fundamentally safer by of-
fering greater protection against viruses, spyware, and other
online risks.”.
Table 2 shows the usage share of the latest major browser
version within each type of Web browser (e.g. the share of
IE7 within the IE population). There were 1,408 million Inter-
net users worldwide end of March 2008 [20]. Globally only
59.1% (832 million users), make use of the latest major ver-
sion of their preferred Web browser to navigate the Internet.
This is an estimate for the upper bound for the global share of
the most secure browsers in use. However, 576 million users
surfed the Internet without using the latest major browser ver-
sion of their preferred browser.
Latest Major
Version
IE7 FF2 SF3 OP9 Total
Release date
of latest major
version
2006-
10-18
2006-
10-24
2007-
10-26
2006-
06-20
Share of latest
major version
within browser
type
52.5% 92.2% 70.2% 90.1% 59.1%
Number of lat-
est major ver-
sion in million
(worldwide)
579 209 34 10 832
Table 2: Share of the latest major version within a given
type of browser as seen on Google’s search and application
Web sites in first week of June 2008. Absolute counts were
calculated using Table 1.
Analysis of the distribution of patches within the latest major
version is used to measure the share of the most secure version
for each browser type.
For Firefox, Safari and Opera we used the HTTP user-agent
information in the Google’s Web log data sets to determine
the minor version. For Internet Explorer we relied upon the
results of Secunia’s PSI statistics [21] to estimate the share of
the most secure version.
As shown in Figure 3, we discovered that at most 83.3% of
Firefox users, 65.3% of Safari users, 56.1% of Opera users,
and 47.6% of Internet Explorer users were using the latest
most secure browser version on any day between January 2007
to June 2008. For the latest version analysis of Safari, we only
considered the date range Dec 2007 to June 2008, when Safari
version 3 became widespread.
Despite the single-click integrated auto-update functionality
of Firefox, rather surprisingly, 16.7% Firefox users (one out of
six) continue to surf the Web with an outdated version of the
Web browser. Meanwhile, 43.9% of all Opera users surf the
Web with an outdated browser version. In the case of Internet
Explorer, 52.4% of that user population continues to rely upon
superseded versions of the Web browser.
While Table 2 represents the early June 2008 snapshot of the
usage share of the latest major version within each browser
type, Figure 2 depicts how these usage shares have changed
over time as users migrate to the latest major version of their
favorite Web browser between January 2007 to June 2008.
It is noteworthy that it has taken 19 months since the ini-
tial general availability of IE7 (public release October 2006)
to reach 52.5% proliferation amongst users that navigate the
Internet with Microsoft’s Web browser. Meanwhile, 92.2% of
Firefox users have migrated to FF2. The migration between
major versions was found to be generally a slow process, ex-
0 20 40 60 80 100
Latest major version within browser type
date
share of latest version %
2007−01−01 2007−04−01 2007−07−01 2007−10−01 2008−01−01 2008−04−01
IE7
FF2
OP9
SF3
Figure 2: Upgrade dynamics of major versions of Internet Explorer (IE7), Firefox (FF2), Opera (OP9), and Safari (SF3)
from Jan 2007 to Jun 2008. The plot shows the usage share of the latest major version within each browser type.
Share of most secure browser versions
83.3% 65.3% 56.1% 47.6%
16.7% 34.7% 43.9% 52.4%
0%
20%
40%
60%
80%
100%
Firefox Safari Opera Internet
Explorer
share %
Users with not most secure browser versions
Users with most secure browser version
Figure 3: Maximum share of users surfing the Web with
the most secure versions of Firefox, Safari, Opera and In-
ternet Explorer in June 2008 as seen on Google websites.
cept for Apple’s Safari SF3 which surpassed 60% share within
3 months of its release - likely influenced by Apple’s contro-
versial inclusion of the new Web browser in the auto-updates
of other popular Apple software products [22].
3.3 Browser Insecurity Iceberg
Just as a floating iceberg only exhibits part of its mass above
the waterline, we believe that our measurement of potentially
insecure Web browsers based upon major and minor version
information is smaller than the global number of users at risk.
Insecure Web browsers (i.e., they have ”built-in” vulnerabili-
ties and security weaknesses) are of course a critical security
problem, but vulnerable plug-ins that are accessible (and ex-
ploitable) through the Web browser extend the insecurity ice-
berg and form the part hidden below the water surface.
3.3.1 Browsers with built-in vulnerabilities
We have estimated the global number of users with browsers
having "built-in" vulnerabilities based upon our measurements
and Secunia’s PSI study.
Secunia [21] identified (for the month of May 2008) that
4.4% of IE7, 8.1% of Firefox, 14.3% of Safari (Windows only),
and 15.2% of Opera users have not applied the most recent
security patches available to them from the software vendor.
In comparison, we discovered that 16.7% of Firefox, 34.7%
of Safari (all OS), and 43.9% of Opera Web browser installa-
tions (using our Web server log-based measurements) had not
applied the most recent security patches. We found that our
Firefox, Safari, and Opera results were higher than those of
Secunia’s, differing by a factor of 2.1 (Firefox), 2.4 (Safari),
and 2.9 (Opera), and attribute this difference to a probable bias
for more security aware users to take advantage of Secunia’s
security scanner PSI than the average global community.
To derive the global population of users with browsers vul-
nerable to built-in vulnerabilities we used the results of our
measurements for Firefox, Safari, and Opera. We chose to es-
timate the value for IE7 based upon the findings of Secunia as
shown in Table 3:
Estimate A
Firefox, Safari, and Opera shares are from our Google
Web log measurements. The IE7 share of 4.4% is from
Secunia’s measurement [21]. This is a minimum esti-
mate as Secunia’s measurement is likely biased towards
more security aware users. IE6 is not considered a most
secure Web browser version (independent of patch level)
as per Microsoft’s upgrade recommendation in [19].
Estimate B
Browser Type IE w/o IE7 IE7 FF SF OP Total
Share of browsers in daily use in percent (cf. Table 1) 37.2% 41.1% 16.1% 3.4% 0.8% 98.6%
Browsers in daily use worldwide in million 523.8 578.7 226.7 47.9 11.3 1388.3
Estimate A
Share of not most secure browser versions in percent 100.0% 4.4% 16.7% 34.7% 43.9% 43.3%
Not most secure browser versions in million 524 25 38 17 5 609
Estimate B - correcting the bias of PSI (IE7 x 2.1)
Share of not most secure browser versions in percent 100.0% 9.2% 16.7% 34.7% 43.9% 45.2%
Not most secure browser versions in million 524 53 38 17 5 637
Table 3: Estimation of the number of users not using the most secure version of their browser.
We apply the factor 2.1 to the IE7 share (2.1 x 4.4% =
9.2%) to correct for the bias of Secunia’s measurement
within a security aware user population. The factor was
found when comparing Firefox, Safari, and Opera data
from Google log files with Secunia’s data.
Our estimate B shows that at least 45.2%, or 637 million
users, were not using the most secure Web browser version
on any working day from January 2007 to June 2008. These
browsers are an easy target for drive-by download attacks as
they are potentially vulnerable to known exploits. This repre-
sents the tip of the Browser Insecurity Iceberg in Figure 1.
Browsers with plug-in vulnerabilities
Because our data sources were limited to the data logged by
Google’s Web servers and the USER-AGENT fields for major
and minor Web browser version information, and as plug-in
version information is not typically stored in this data field, we
were not able to directly measure the number of users having
out of date and vulnerable Web browser plug-ins. However,
there is public evidence that this number adds to the number
of users with browsers having "built-in" vulnerabilities:
Fully patched browsers at risk Through vulnerable
plug-ins even those hosts are at risk, which are running
the latest most secure browser version.
Cross-browser and cross-platform plug-ins Most plug-
ins are compatible with multiple popular Web browser
technologies and operating systems. Therefore a larger
population of users are exposed if a common plug-in is
found to be vulnerable.
Multiple popular plug-ins per browser A typical Web
browser has more than one plug-in application installed.
Media players and other plug-ins are ubiquitous, with
individual usage shares frequently exceeding 80% [2].
Table 3 lists the adopted use of some of the most popular
plug-in applications - all of which are accessible through
a Web browser.
Plug-in patching discipline Considering our analysis
of insecure Web browser usage, we deem it unlikely that
the same users achieve higher patch levels for multiple
plug-ins installed; with each plug-in relying on different
patching and updating mechanisms. For example, Se-
cunia’s numbers that state 18.7% of all WinAMP 5 in-
stallations miss important security updates, and 21.7%
of all Quicktime 7 installations are out of date [17].
Users with browsers having plug-in vulnerabilities and those
found to have browsers with built-in vulnerabilities are not
mutually exclusive. While we can estimate the tip of the Browser
Insecurity Iceberg based on global measurements, additional
users at risk are hidden below the water line as shown in Fig-
ure 1.
Plug-In Vendor Share Support
Flash Player Adobe 98.8% all
Java Sun 84.0% all
Media Player Microsoft 82.2% IE only
QuickTime Player Apple 66.8% all
Shockwave Player Adobe 55.6% all
RealOne Player Real Networks 47.1% all
Acrobat PDF Reader Adobe >80% all
Table 4: Usage shares of some widely used plug-ins.
4. TOWARDS A SAFER BROWSING EX-
PERIENCE
4.1 Existing Technology Solutions
There exist today a number of technologies that have already
been proven to offer some degree of protection against threats
that target insecure and vulnerable Web browsers. While none
of these technologies are currently capable of providing full
protection against the threats, wherever possible, we recom-
mend that enterprises and vendors deploy or implement them
as part of their defence in depth strategy to help reduce the
surface area of potential attacks.
4.1.1 Auto-update
Although Web browser users wish perfect software that will
never have any exploitable software vulnerabilities, the near-
est they can realistically hope for is that any vulnerabilities are
promptly fixed by the software vendors and instantly applied
to their browser. Critical to this instantaneous patching process
is the mechanism of ”auto-update”. Our measurement con-
firmed that Web browsers which implement an internal auto-
update patching mechanism do much better in terms of faster
update adoption rates than those without.
Our comparison of the update dynamics between Firefox
and Opera identified that auto-update mechanisms are crucial
for timely patching. Firefox’s auto-update was found to be
way more effective than Opera’s manual update download re-
minder strategy.
In our measurement period from January 2007 to June 2008,
most users updated to a new version of Firefox within three
days of a new public release, resulting in up to 83% of users
0 20 40 60 80 100
Firefox most secure versions
date
version share %
2007−09−01 2007−10−01 2007−11−01
2.0.0.7
2.0.0.8
latest version (N)
second latest version (N−1)
sum (N)+(N−1)
Figure 4: Share of Firefox browser users in percent that use the latest or second latest browser version. Most users update
within three days, which proves Firefox’ auto-update mechanism to be very effective.
having the most current and secure Firefox version installed.
It took users of the Opera Web browser an average of 11 days
before reaching an update saturation at a level of up to 56%
of the users running the most current and secure Opera ver-
sion. While Firefox and Opera check for updates when the
browser is used, Safari relies on an external Apple-updater
that appears to only poll for new updates at scheduled regu-
lar intervals while Internet Explorer gets updated as part of the
monthly distributed Windows patches.
Regarding speed for upgrading to the next major browser
version, Firefox, Safari and Opera users clearly outperformed
Internet Explorer users (see Figure 2). Considering that Mi-
crosoft offers Internet Explorer 7 as an auto-upgrade from In-
ternet Explorer 6 as part of the monthly Windows updates and
that it requires a manual patch to prevent upgrading to version
7, it is rather surprising to see how slow the migration to the
most secure version has been.
We believe the auto-update mechanism as implemented within
Firefox to be the most efficient patching mechanism of the
Web browsers studied. Firefox’s mechanism regularly polls
an online authority to verify whether a new version of the Web
browser is available and typically prompts the user to update
if a new version exists. With a single click (assuming that
the user has administrative rights on the host), the update is
downloaded and installed. Just as importantly, Firefox also
checks for many of the currently installed Firefox plug-ins if
they are similarly up to date, and, if not, will prompt the user
to update them. Opera’s update mechanism is essentially the
same procedure as a manual download and re-installation of
the browser.
While Microsoft’s operating system auto-update functional-
ity encompasses the Internet Explorer update mechanism even
if the browser is not in use, the fact that patch updates (for
both Internet Explorer 6 and 7) are typically only made avail-
able on a monthly basis means that updates are released less
frequently (when compared to Firefox), which can result in a
lower short term patching effectiveness.
Based upon our findings, we strongly recommend that soft-
ware vendors embrace auto-update mechanisms within their
products that are capable of identifying the availability of new
patches and installing security updates as quickly and effi-
ciently as possible - ideally enabled by default and causing
minimal disruption to the user. We also recommend that these
same auto-update mechanisms are capable of alerting the user
of any plug-ins currently exposed through the Web browser
that have newer and more secure versions available.
4.1.2 Perimeter URL Filtering
In light of mass-defacements and the organised ”seeding” of
Web sites for the purpose of drive-by download attacks, cur-
rent URL filtering technologies can help to mitigate a fraction
of the threat. When URL filtering technologies are deployed at
the perimeter of a businesses network, and all corporate users
proxy their Internet page requests through it, vulnerable hosts
can usually be protected from Web sites known to be host-
ing malicious content designed to compromise vulnerable Web
browsers.
If a Web site or particular URL is known to be malicious,
it is a trivial process to prevent Web browser users navigating
to the site and accessing the malicious content. However, a
limitation of this protection is the extent of the URL database.
If a malicious URL is not listed within the filtering database,
no filtering protection is typically applied.
Major vendors that offer URL filtering solutions tend to have
extensive coverage of well known and previously identified
malicious Web sites, and are quick to incorporate new URL
filters once additional malicious Web sites are reported. As
such, URL filtering technologies have proven to perform well
against most current-generation mass-defacement iframe in-
festations, largely due to the fact that the iframes injected into
vulnerable Web sites during the mass-defacements tend to point
to only a limited set of URL’s that host the malicious infection
code. However, there is an expectation that the criminals be-
hind these attacks will soon adopt new techniques designed to
bypass less agile URL filtering technologies.
We believe that URL filtering technologies are a valuable
protection for reducing vulnerable Web browser exploitation.
Given the success of this class of protection technology in
helping to mitigate the drive-by download threat, we encour-
age its use beyond just protecting corporate environments. Some
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) already offer URL filtering
services to their customers and several popular search engine
providers have also begun to issue visible alerts to users for
URLs known to be malicious or fraudulent. We encourage
vendors to collaborate and share information on newly identi-
fied malicious URLs (in the same vein as the malware research
community already shares malware and analysis results) so
that the most current and exhaustive filtering lists are available
for the protection of all.
4.2 Proposed Technology Solutions
While the previously discussed protection technologies pro-
vide a level of defense against current Web browser exploita-
tion threats and will likely improve as they mature, we believe
that two new strategies could be developed in the near future
to increase both host protection and user awareness.
4.2.1 ”Best before” date
As quantified earlier, a significant fraction of the Web browsers
used to navigate the Internet on a daily basis have been iden-
tified as being not up-to-date in terms of having the latest se-
curity patches applied. As such, they put the users that rely
upon them at risk and infections by malware from the Web
can expose personal data stored on their hosts to attackers. We
believe that, in the majority of cases, the absence of critical
or important updates to the Web browsers can be attributed to
three important factors; technological (can’t do), motivational
(don’t care), or informational (don’t know).
When designing a solution for the vulnerable Web browser
problem, it is important to consider the three parties involved:
the end user, the Web browser vendor, and the Web service
provider. Each of these may intervene and help remedy the
problem in different ways.
We believe that a critical path to increasing the security of
Web browsers (indeed any and all inter-networked applica-
tions including online game clients) involves making the user
aware of the risk they are exposing themselves and their host
to, but without introducing additional complexity.
Almost all users are familiar with the concept of ”sell by”,
”expires on”, or ”best before” date stamps on perishable goods.
Consumers tend to rely on this date information in order to de-
cide whether to purchase the goods, when to use the goods
and when to dispose of the goods. Once a particular perish-
able good has exceeded its ”best before” date, the consumer is
forced to evaluate their personal risk to using it or disposing
of it. The greater the lapse between the ”best before” date and
the current date, the more risk the consumer assumes by not
disposing of it.
Given the state of the software industry and the growing
threat of exploitable vulnerabilities within all applications (not
just Web browsers), we believe that the establishment of a
”best before” date for all new software releases could prove
an invaluable means to educating the user to patch or ”refresh”
their software applications. The same ”best before” date infor-
mation could also be leveraged by Internet businesses to help
evaluate or mitigate the risk of customers who are using out of
date software and are consequently at a higher risk of having
been compromised.
In Table 5, we compare the mechanisms of the software in-
dustry with the practices of the food industry.
In general, the food industries implementation of a "best be-
fore" date has been accepted as a valuable contribution in en-
abling consumers to evaluate the integrity of their purchase
and the likelihood of spoilage. As illustrated above, the ecosys-
tem developed by the food industry provides a good compari-
son with inadequacies commonly identified with the software
industry. By developing a "best before" system for software
applications, we believe that both users and businesses could
be better informed - particularly in the realm of Web browsers
and plug-in applications.
A public mindset change is required to counter evolving In-
ternet threats, and a "best before" dating system would make
visible the risks of using out-dated and insecure software. In-
stead of assuming software to be secure, a "best before" dating
system would enable the notification of upcoming expiration
and risk associated with out of date or unpatched software so
that the user is aware of the need to keep installed software
"fresh". While the "best before" date for software is not ac-
tually known at the time of a software release, it will be de-
fined upon detection and availability of a security patch for an
already released version. Therefore, it has to be queried fre-
quently by software in use.
In order to achieve a viable "best before" dating system, soft-
ware vendors need to follow stricter practices in the alloca-
tion of version number information and make those version
numbers more accessible. For example Firefox, Safari, and
Opera send detailed version information in the USER-AGENT
header field, while Internet Explorer only provides major ver-
sion information (excluding patch information). This detailed
level of information enables service providers to remotely es-
tablish the patching level of the Web browser and perhaps im-
plement their own "best before" look-up services. For exam-
ple, an online banking service may use the version information
supplied by the user’s Web browser to establish when the soft-
ware was last updated and to assess the level of risk the host
has been compromised with malware. Armed with that infor-
mation, the banking application may decide to implement ad-
ditional safeguards and inspection on subsequent transactions
by the user.
While some may argue that more detailed version informa-
tion within the Web browser USER-AGENT field makes it
easier for an attacker to target specific versions of a Web browser,
this is irrelevant given current attack methodologies that sim-
ply iterate through ten’s or hundred’s of exploits hoping that
one will work. Access to such version information by the at-
tacker would not increase the probability of exploitation, but
merely reduce the volume of data sent to the browser by the
attacker’s malicious server.
Visualizing a ”best before” date
We believe that the "best before" dating concept could be
built into most existing software applications, and thereby pro-
vide a convenient and persistent validation of the likely in-
tegrity of the software. For example, popular Web browsers
Food Industry Software Industry
User mindset
(today)
Food is a perishable good Some software is used for years without
update (to prevent compatibility issues)
Information and awareness The "best before" date is easily accessi-
ble and clearly visible on all products.
Well accepted and enforced stan-
dard/practice.
If at all, the patch level of the browser
is only visible upon request.
If at all, the state of auto-update
(enabled/disabled/last checked) is only
visible upon request.
No standard or requirement for
software vendors to make security
information available in their product
to the end user (e.g., display patch level
or auto-update disabled).
User The consumer checks the expiration
date before using food
A consumer is free to eat food af-
ter the "best before" date expired.
However, he does so at his own risk
and he is aware of it.
Software version information is avail-
able, but not all software packages are
capable of automatically checking for
updates.
No restriction for a user to work
with insecure, old and unsupported
software. Users are typically not aware
of the risk.
Service provider (reseller or
web service provider)
Retailers are typically not legally
allowed to sell products after the "best
before" date.
Vendor is liable for damages.
Web service providers do not check for
insecure versions of Web browsers or
browser plug-ins.
No liability for software vendors.
Manufacturer or producer Producer may be liable if food sold be-
fore expiration turns out to be bad.
No liability for software vendors.
A vendor is not obliged to provide
software updates
Table 5: Comparison of the users’ mindset with regard to the food industry and the software industry
Figure 5: Example "best before" implementation on Web browser
could display a visual warning of expiry and how many patches
are currently missing as illustrated in Figure 5.
Armed with more concise USER-AGENT version informa-
tion, popular websites could also visually alert users (see Fig-
ure 6) to the fact that their Web browser is operating beyond
its "best before" date and any missing updates (including pro-
viding shortcuts to the location of appropriate updates).
4.2.2 Authentic sources of most recent plug-in
versions
As previously discussed, auto-update mechanisms can be a
valuable device for keeping Web browsers up to date with the
latest security patches and fixes. However, auto-update mech-
anisms typically do not encompass plug-ins not produced by
the vendor or plug-ins not provided as part of a default in-
stallation. The Firefox Web browser auto-update mechanism
is alerting users to compatible updates for plug-ins installed
through, and registered by, the browser - but typically only
encompasses a handful of plug-in applications commonly ac-
cessible through Web browser technologies. We believe that
there are two key reasons for this - no convenient method of
checking and cataloguing of installed plug-ins on the host, and
no authoritative source of plug-in current version information
(assisted by an update location).
Any examination of the last few years of vulnerability dis-
closures will reveal a plethora of critical, remotely exploitable,
vulnerabilities in practically all plug-in technologies (e.g., Mi-
crosoft ActiveX, Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, etc.). These
browser plug-ins must be similarly patched and updated, just
like the Web browser itself. In order to achieve this, it is vi-
Figure 6: Example "best before" implementation on a popular Web service, e.g., Wikipedia
tal that the version information for an installed plug-in can
be quickly compared with an authoritative source to discover
whether the host has the most current and secure version.
However, it is inefficient for the different engineering teams
of Web browsers and plug-ins to each develop independent so-
lutions for the same problem. We propose that information of
the most recent secure version of browsers and popular plug-
ins should be systematically collected by trusted organizations
and made accessible using a standardized querying process
that also ensures a degree of confidence and authenticity in the
version information. Using this process, Web browsers could
easily check the status of the installed plug-ins and inform the
user accordingly, as well as provide the information necessary
to download and install the latest update. The same protocol
could also be used by Web service operators to check the "best
before" date information of client browsers and plug-ins re-
questing their services, as suggested in Section 4.2.1.
Conveniently, services and processes to collect and dissemi-
nate relevant security information to the public do already ex-
ist: CERTs and several private security information providers
[23, 24, 25, 26, 27] already process vulnerability and patch
information of various vendors and software packages. Pro-
viding secure version information on a standardized protocol
would be in-line with their existing activities.
For plug-in technologies not registered or recorded by a search-
able central authority (such as plug-ins no longer supported by
the vendor that created them), the use of a "best before" dating
system, reinforced by Web browser actions such as disabling
all access and calls to the component, would likely aid in pro-
tecting vulnerable hosts.
5. CONCLUSION
Access to Google’s global Web server logs enabled the au-
thors to provide the first in-depth global perspective on the
state of insecurity for Web browser technologies. Understand-
ing the nature of the threats against Web browser and their
plug-in technologies is important for continued Internet usage.
As more users and organizations depend upon these browser
technologies to access ever more complex and distributed busi-
ness applications, any threats to the underlying platform equate
to a direct risk to business continuity and integrity.
By measuring the patching processes of Web browser user
populations, we have been able to identify the potential global
scale of Web-based malicious exploitation of browser tech-
nologies and prove how existing mechanisms such as Firefox’s
auto-update can outperform more complex and less timely so-
lutions.
Based on direct measurements of the adoption of new Web
browser updates based upon available USER-AGENT major
and minor browser software version numbers, and by com-
bining that data with Secunia’s latest PSI local-host scanning
results for plug-in patch adoption (even though sample sizes
are radically different), we quantified the lower bounds of the
Web browser population vulnerable to attacks through security
weaknesses.
Unfortunately, just like a floating iceberg, we were only able
to measure and accurately estimate the tip above the water.
The tip of the Web browser insecurity iceberg was measured to
be 637 million (or 45.2%) Internet users at risk worldwide due
to not running the latest most secure browser version. Mean-
while, hidden below the surface, the iceberg extends further
encompassing users that rely on outdated vulnerable browser
plug-ins. Due to an inability to passively enumerate the ver-
sions of any plug-ins hosts have installed (due to this informa-
tion not typically being imparted in HTTP requests logged by
Web servers), this was out of scope for our passive measure-
ment based study.
To help combat existing and rapidly evolving threats such as
malicious drive-by downloads, we have proposed the concept
of a "best before" date for software and related mechanisms
to tackle user awareness and provide a vehicle for online busi-
nesses to better assess the risk level of their customers’ hosts.
While none of the mechanisms proposed within this paper
can guarantee to fully protect against exploitation, we are con-
fident that widespread adoption and improvements of these
technologies would dramatically reduce the dimensions of the
insecurity iceberg and shrink the attack surface.
Acknowledgements
We would like to thank Bernhard Plattner, Head of the Com-
munication Systems Group at ETH Zurich, for his valuable
feedback and support for this paper.
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