February 4, 2004 3:06 PM PST
IE security patch nixes some apps
Microsoft last week announced that a modification to its IE browser would stop the insecure practice of including sensitive information in links. The update, which was released Monday, had some Web site programmers up in arms Wednesday due to complaints from Web users that they could no longer log in to sites that secure entry through credentials included in the URL.
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The incident could be the first known case of Microsoft getting attention for putting security before a feature used by some of its customers. Microsoft promised to put security first when it launched its Trustworthy Computing Initiative more than two years ago. But some critics have claimed that they haven't seen many results.
"I really look at it from the standpoint of the majority of customers," said Stephen Toulouse, security program manager at Microsoft's security response center. "Our customers have said, 'We want security,' and so that is the change that we gave them."
The problem occurs when programmers design a Web site to enable a Web user to log in by typing credentials into the URL. In such cases, the Web address might look like this: http://username:firstname.lastname@example.org/program.ext. The link gives the person access to a company's Web site when the authentication program verifies the username and password.
Because the username and password are part of the Web address and are not encrypted, embedding the credential in the URL is considered a security risk, said William Kennedy, chief technology officer at ActivMedia Robotics and the co-author of "HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide."
"It was a dumb idea to include such functionality in the first place," Kennedy said. "There are millions of other ways of logging in to a site."
However, that sentiment was not what made Microsoft disable the feature. The software giant made the change to stop scam artists from constructing URLs that appeared to link to a legitimate Web site but actually directed people to a fraudulent site. For instance, a URL that appears to go to eBay could actually send the person to a fraudulent site such as: http://email@example.com.
The fake site will typically ask for a person's username and password and then use that information to complete a scam. Major banks and other financial Web sites, such as PayPal, are popular targets of such fraud, often called "phishing." The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the government organization that underwrites U.S. citizens' banks accounts, recently warned of a similar scam.
"I suspect most folks never heard of this feature," said Richard Smith, a privacy and security expert. "The big exception, of course, is the phishing scam artists."
Programmer Rosko acknowledges that putting the username and password in the URL is not very secure, but he stressed that some applications don't need the security.
"This is for noncritical information," he said. "It is information that we would just rather not have everyone on the Web have access to."
In some cases, making the change after the IE update has been difficult.
Angus Systems Group, an online service that allows commercial property owners to manage tenant requests, uses URL credentials so that users can log in to a third-party application that generates reports. The application is not sensitive enough to require individual logins; so users typically log in as part of a group by using a specific URL.
"It wouldn't be that much of an issue, if it was a per-user basis--if the user was responsible for their own credentials," said Brad Aisa, senior architect for Angus Systems. "Unfortunately, we don't have any control over that aspect of (the third-party application's) security."
Aisa wasn't aware of the issue until customers started complaining.
"All of a sudden, you come in one day, and things aren't working anymore, because (Microsoft has) determined that a way they are doing things is not secure," he said. "There should be an opt-in system for that."
After looking at the options, Angus Systems will likely have to reverse Microsoft's security move by giving people a registry update to turn off that part of the patch, Aisa said.
CNET News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.