Networking / Beginners

Making Browsers and E-mail Clients More Secure

There are several steps network administrators and users can take to make Web browsers and e-mail clients more secure and protect against malicious code or unauthorized use of information. These steps include the following:

  • Restricting the use of programming languages
  • Keeping security patches current
  • Becoming aware of the function of cookies
NOTE The process of adding patches and making changes to make systems more secure is called hardening, as performing such actions makes the system less vulnerable and harder for intruders to access and exploit. By taking actions to secure systems before an actual problem occurs, you can avoid many of the security issues discussed in this tutorial. This mindset not only applies to browsers and e-mail clients, but any systems in your organization.

Restricting Programming Languages

Most Web browsers have options settings that allow users to restrict or deny the use of Web-based programming languages. For example, IE can be set to do one of three things when a JavaScript, Java, or ActiveX element appears on a Web page:

  • Always allow
  • Always deny
  • Prompt for user input

Restricting all executable code from Web sites, or at least forcing the user to make choices each time code is downloaded, reduces security breaches caused by malicious downloaded components.

A side benefit of restricting the Web browser's use of these programming languages is that the restrictions set in the browser often apply to the e-mail client as well.This is true when the browser is IE and the e-mail client is Outlook or Outlook Express, and Netscape and Eudora also depend on the Web browser settings for HTML handling.The same malicious code that can be downloaded from a Web site could just as easily be sent to a person's e-mail account. If administrators do not have such restrictions in place, their e-mail client can automatically execute downloaded code.

Keep Security Patches Current

New exploits for Web browsers and e-mail clients seem to appear daily, with security flaws providing the ability for hackers with the proper skills and conditions being able to remote control, overwhelm, or otherwise negatively effect systems. In addition to this, there are bugs that can cause any number of issues when using the program. In some cases, developers of the program may know the bugs exist, but the software was shipped anyway to meet a certain release date or other reasons. After all, it is better for the company (although not necessarily the consumer) to have the software on shelves, bugs and all, and then release patches later to fix the problems.

Depending on the number of changes necessary to fix problems or provide new features, the software to repair vulnerabilities and make other modifications to code may be released in one of two forms:

  • Patch, which is also known as a hotfix, bugfix, or update.These are released as problems are identified, and as soon as developers can write code to eliminate or work around recognized issues. Generally, patches will only address a single security issue or bug, and are released because the problem should be fixed immediately (as opposed to waiting for the next upgrade).
  • Upgrade, which is also known as a service release, version upgrade, or service pack. Upgrades contain significant changes to the code, and may also provide new tools, graphics, and other features. Generally, they contain all of the previous patches that still apply to the code written in the new version, and may contain new fixes to bugs that weren't problematic enough to require a patch to be released.

Product vendors usually address significant threats promptly by releasing a patch for their products, while releasing upgrades intermittently.To maintain a secure system, administrators must remain informed about their software and apply patches for vulnerabilities when they become available. However, they must consider a few caveats when working with software patches:

  • Patches are often released quickly, in response to an immediate problem, so they may not have been thoroughly tested. Although rare, this can result in failed installations, crashed systems, inoperable programs, or additional security vulnerabilities.
  • It is extremely important to test new patches on non-production systems before deploying them throughout a network.
  • If a patch cannot be deemed safe for deployment, the administrator should weigh the consequences of not deploying it and remaining vulnerable to the threat against the possibility that the patch might itself cause system damage. If the threat from the vulnerability is minimal, it is often safer to wait and experience the problem that a patch is designed to address before deploying a questionable patch.
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