A couple days ago I had mentioned that Lord Avebury had asked the UK Government about their usage of IE. The UK Government has now answered and I am reproducing the full text of the question and answer below:
Asked by Lord Avebury
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the governments of France and Germany about security risks of using Internet Explorer; and whether they will encourage public sector users to use another web browser. [HL1420]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): UK government officials and subject matter experts are in regular contact with their counterparts in France, Germany and other countries on both a bilateral and multilateral basis to exchange technical information and opinions on many aspects of cyber security, including software vulnerabilities. For example, the UK’s Government Computer Emergency Response Team (GovCertUK) and Combined Security Incident Response Team (CSIRTUK) are members of the group of European Government CERTS (EGG), as are their French and German equivalents.
Complex software will always have vulnerabilities and motivated adversaries will always work to discover and take advantage of them. We take internet security very seriously and we have worked with Microsoft and other suppliers over many years to understand the security of the products used by HMG, including Internet Explorer. There is no evidence that moving from the latest fully patched versions of Internet Explorer to other browsers will make users more secure. Regular software patching and updating will help defend against the latest threats.
Microsoft issued a patch to fix the recent Internet Explorer vulnerability on 21 January. Prior to this, government departments had been issued with a GovCertUK alert on how to deal with this particular incident and to mitigate vulnerabilities in relation to particular versions of IE.
A government user, operating on government systems, such as the Government Secure Intranet (GSi), will benefit from additional security measures, unlikely to be available to the average home computer user. These include tools which actively monitor for evidence of any malicious attacks.
Source: Lords Hansard text for 26 Jan 2010
While the UK government contends that “there is no evidence that moving from the latest fully patched versions of Internet Explorer to other browsers will make users more secure”, there are many others who would disagree.
Also, although IE8 has significantly improved security models as compared to IE6 and IE7, there is still evidence that IE6 is being heavily used by UK government departments, including the armed forces. I think most people would agree that a “fully patched” IE6 is still relatively more vulnerable to attacks.
Lord Avebury (blog, bio) has tabled a written question in the United Kingdom House of Lords yesterday, which reads as under:
Lord Avebury to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the light of the recent announcement by Microsoft that Internet Explorer was used to carry out the cyber attacks which prompted Google to say it will withdraw from China, they will review the use of Internet Explorer throughout the public sector. HL1505
Source: House of Lords Business (26 January 2010) and Eric Avebury: Internet vulernability
Lord Avebury mentions that the Parliamentary IT authorities are actively discouraging the use of alternative browsers such as Chrome so it is great to see that he is holding the government accountable for their policies.
According to UK parliamentary procedure, the government is obliged to provide a written response to his question on or before 8 February 2010. I think it will be interesting to see what they have to say.
Lord Avebury is an active campaigner for the rights of ethnic minorities in the UK and also those who are British nationals living abroad. He is also a member of the EU Select Committee which considers EU policy on protecting Europe from large-scale cyber attacks.
I am responsible for overseeing the IT infrastructure of an office with about 40 Windows-based computers. We always keep the OS and relevant software patched, though sometimes even keeping Windows/Office/IE patched to the most current level is not enough.
The workarounds provided by Microsoft for this issue are frankly, not acceptable because website functionality with security set to ‘High’ is unacceptable and generate user complaints (and doesn’t even solve the problem completely).
Events like this give me cause to consider a company-wide deployment of Firefox as the default browser. We have no internal applications that rely on IE so this is not a sticking point for us as it is for many corporations. Plus, Firefox has far fewer “vulnerable days” as compared to IE (and when Firefox is vulnerable the potential risk to the system is usually lower).
However, there are a couple of blockers that stop me from taking this step. These include:
- Lack of an automated/scriptable way to deploy Firefox that is supported by Mozilla (though bug 231062 has been filed for an MSI install package – almost 5 years later there is still no resolution).
- Lack of any way to force Firefox product/security upgrades upon users. Without this, Firefox is arguably even more insecure than IE because at least with IE we can be reasonably sure that updates are being pushed out on schedule.
- Lack of any centralised way to make sure plugins are up to date (I will concede that IE is not up to par on this front either).
There are probably a few other points that I can’t think of at the moment. However, our company is an SME with less than 100 computers and I find these issues troubling. Imagine a Fortune 500 company – the problem for them would be multiplied many fold.
I am unhappy about the latest problems with IE and unhappy that there is no patch yet for an exploit that is so clearly in the wild and unhappy that there isn’t even an acceptable way to mitigate the risk.
Having said all this – at the moment I don’t see that switching to an alternative browser is an acceptable solution to this problem for enterprise users for the reasons above.
If work was done to make Firefox more enterprise friendly, this would go a long way towards adoption in the workplace. As it stands, there are just too many reasons not to deploy even though the product is clearly superior from an end user standpoint.