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Researchers accuse Google of plotting to undercut Firefox

NSS Labs argues 'Chrome-is-most-secured-browser' report is part of campaign to trim Firefox's share

December 14, 2011 03:17 PM ET

Computerworld - A security testing firm today said a recent report that named Google's Chrome as the most secured browser was flawed -- and part of a campaign by Google to undermine Mozilla's Firefox.

Google denied the charges.

The work done by Denver-based security consultancy Accuvant, which released a report last week naming Chrome as more secured than either Firefox or Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), was paid for by Google.

That raised the hackles of NSS Labs, a California company that tests browser security and antivirus software.

"This is a vendor-funded paper, and in these cases, the vendor is going to drive the methodology [of the testing], which appears to be the case here," said Vikram Phatak, the chief technology officer of NSS Labs, in an interview today.

When reminded that NSS Labs has conducted vendor-funded browser security research in the past -- Microsoft sponsored several NSS tests on anti-malware blocking technologies -- Phatak replied, "There's a reason why we don't do that anymore."

Calling Accuvant's testing process "skewed toward Chrome," Phatak argued that the consulting company's researchers ignored some key Firefox security features -- notably "frame poisoning," which blocks exploits of most layout code crashes; didn't give enough weight to such things as frequent security updates; and failed to use real-world anti-browser malware in its testing.

But Phatak and Rick Moy, president of NSS Labs, leveled more serious charges against Google than the allegedly-slanted report.

The two tied the release of the report with two other factors -- the apparent non-renewal of the Google-Mozilla search contract and a recent rise in Chrome's anti-malware blocking effectiveness -- to conclude that Google was running a campaign to knock Firefox out of the market.

"This tells a story, that Google is looking to go it alone now, and examining their position vis-a-vis Mozilla," said Phatak. "Google paid for this report, and it's part of a marketing campaign that's probably aimed at Firefox to cut off Firefox's revenues, cut if off from the Safe Browsing service, and then put out a report that says Firefox is less secure than Chrome."

"I think there's consistency in the data points," said Moy.

While Mozilla has said it was "in active negotiations" with Google about a new contract, it has declined to announce whether it has reached a deal with its long-time partner. That contract expired last month.

Income from the Google-Mozilla contract accounted for 84% of the $123 million the latter reported in revenue for 2010, the last year Mozilla has made public its finances.

The other factor Phatak and Moy used to bolster their claim of a concerted effort by Google to squash Mozilla's Firefox came from NSS Labs' own testing, which showed a five-fold jump in Chrome's effectiveness blocking malware in an 11-day period from Nov. 22 to Dec. 2.

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