German gov't endorses Chrome as most secure browser

Federal security agency touts sandbox, silent update as features that keep citizens safer online

Germany's cyber security agency today recommended that Windows 7 users run Google's Chrome browser, citing the application's sandbox and auto-update features.

In a security best practices guideline, Germany's Federal Office for Information Security, known by its German initials of BSI, said Chrome was the best browser.

"Your internet browser is the key component for the use of services on the Web and thus represents the main target for cyber-attacks," said BSI in its published advice. "By using Google Chrome in conjunction with the other measures outlined above, you can significantly reduce the risk of a successful IT attack."

BSI ticked off Chrome's anti-exploit sandbox technology, which isolates the browser from the operating system and the rest of the computer; its silent update mechanism and Chrome's habit of bundling Adobe Flash, as its reasons for the recommendation.

"This [sandbox] protection is implemented most consistently in Chrome...[and] similar mechanisms in other browsers are currently either weaker or non-existent," explained BSI.

BSI, for "Bundesamt fuer Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik," has a habit of making software recommendations, particularly about browsers, unlike U.S. agencies. Two years ago, for example, BSI urged Germans to stop using Internet Explorer (IE) until Microsoft patched a vulnerability that had allegedly been used by Chinese hackers to break into networks owned by Google and dozens of other Western companies.

Unlike in the U.S., where Windows 7 users are automatically handed IE as the default browser, Germans are shown a browser ballot screen when they first run Windows. The ballot screen lets users choose which browser they want to set as the default, and if necessary, download and install it.

That selection process stems from a settlement Microsoft reached with European Union antitrust regulators in 2009, two years after Opera Software officially complained that IE's bundling with Windows and the browser's default status stifled competition.

Not surprisingly, Google was happy about the recommendation. "We're particularly honored to see several of [Chrome's] security benefits recognized in the report," wrote Wieland Holfelder, who heads Google's engineering efforts in Germany, in a Friday post to Chrome's official blog.

BSI also recommended Adobe Reader X -- the version of the popular PDF reader that, like Chrome, relies on a sandbox to protect users from exploits -- and urged citizens to use Windows' Auto Update feature to keep their PCs abreast of all OS security fixes.

To update applications, BSI gave a nod to Secunia's Personal Software Inspector (PSI), a free utility that scan a computer for outdated software and point users to appropriate downloads.

Chrome currently accounts for just 14.3% of all browsers used in Germany, according to Irish Web measurement company StatCounter. Mozilla's Firefox has 51% of the German market, while IE accounts for 24.8%.

While Mozilla is making progress on silent updates for Firefox, the company won't wrap up the project until June at the earliest. Nor does Firefox include a Chrome-esque sandbox, although developers have been working on separating each tab's process, something Chrome also offers, to make its browser more resilient to crashes.

Worldwide, Chrome is more popular: StatCounter's data shows that Chrome's 28.4% share put it in second place behind IE's 37.5% but ahead of Firefox's 24.8%.

The BSI best practice guides for consumers and small businesses can be found on the agency's website. Both documents are in German.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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