IE8's clickjacking fix not much help, security researchers say

Outsiders dispute Microsoft's claim that feature in IE8 RC1 offers 'consumer-ready' protection

New technology from Microsoft Corp. designed to protect Internet Explorer users from a powerful new Web-based attack won't fix the problem, some security researchers said Tuesday.

Microsoft released the technology yesterday as part of the Release Candidate 1 version of its upcoming Internet Explorer 8 browser, saying that the feature provides "consumer-ready" protection for an attack known as clickjacking.

In clickjacking, attackers use special Web programming to trick victims into clicking Web buttons without realizing it. The attack is hard to pull off, but at its worst, clickjacking can do some very nasty things, such as execute stock trades on financial Web sites, change router or firewall configurations, or even force someone to download unwanted software.

The problem is so vast that security researchers worry that Microsoft's approach, which works only when Web site developers add special tags to their pages that prevent their own Web buttons from being misused, may end up giving IE users a false sense of security.

"It's not a solution to clickjacking by any stretch of the imagination. It's a vaguely mitigating factor for the very few people who use IE8," said Robert Hansen, CEO of SecTheory LLC, and one of the people who first reported the issue to Microsoft. "But it's interesting that they're taking it seriously."

Although some Web sites will certainly use Microsoft's technology to prevent their IE visitors from being hit with clickjacking, there are simply too many other areas in which HTML code is unlikely to be updated and hackers could launch attacks — targeting router administrative interfaces or corporate applications, for example, or going after Web sites that haven't gotten around to implementing Microsoft's fix. "This is a solution which, even if everyone decides that this is the right way to do things, it still will take years and years of education," Hansen said.

Worse, some users might mistakenly think they are protected from the attack just because they are using IE, according to Giorgio Maone, developer of the Firefox NoScript plug-in, which is widely considered the best protection from many Web-based attacks, including clickjacking.

"The bad news for IE enthusiasts is that they've got no magic 'out of the box' protection," Maone wrote in his blog Tuesday. "True, it doesn't require any 'browser add-on' ... but it comes with an even more strict requirement: All the sites to be protected must already have adopted a new proprietary hack, i.e., something no end user can verify, let alone enforce."

NoScript lets users selectively block the use of scripting languages within the Firefox browser. Because clickjacking requires scripting, the attack doesn't work when NoScript is enabled.

For months, Maone's plug-in has been the best-known technology for thwarting clickjacking. With the IE8 test code, however, Microsoft finally has its own alternative.

To help the situation, Maone is developing a compatibility feature so that NoScript users will be able to take advantage of the same Web code used by IE, and he is now lobbying to have this feature included in an upcoming version of Firefox.

Hansen and Maone also criticized Microsoft for holding off on technical details of the technology. "Even though they implemented that, they haven't given guidance on how to actually use it," Hansen said.

In an e-mailed statement, Microsoft said that it plans to put up a blog post on the anti-clickjacking feature sometime this week and that it had worked with all major browser vendors "to get feedback and input on our implementation of the clickjacking tag before shipping Internet Explorer 8 RC1."

That post might be helpful. As things stand now, it looks like "the feature doesn't allow the user to protect themselves," said Jeremiah Grossman, chief technology officer at WhiteHat Security.

Hansen said that Microsoft developers first proposed their IE8 clickjacking fix several months ago after he described the problem to them. "I dismissed it as not a long-term, viable solution to clickjacking," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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