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Arun Marballi
UPGRADING WEB BROWSER TO IE 7.0 IS OK - ALSO WATCH OUT FOR BROWSER HIJACKING
By ARUN MARBALLI

Back in November, Microsoft released its latest version of Web Browser software – the Internet Explorer 7.0, IE 7.0, for short. This latest version has brought Microsoft’s offering in line with features found in other popular browsers such as Forefox.

After two months, Microsoft recently announced that IE 7.0 downloads have hit the one billion mark – and based on industry feedback, the number of customer complaints related to this version has begun a downward trend, indicating that the browser appears to have stabilized. It would be a good idea at this time to upgrade the browser to IE 7.0, particularly for its security features that are designed to make our cyber travels safer.

Speaking of safer navigation in cyber space, I have often recommended a “defensive driving” approach by eliminating risky behavior such as knowingly opening spam e-mail, opening attachments or following links included in suspicious e-mail.

While these are valuable do’s and don’ts, there are a few things we should always do to minimize our chances of getting waylaid. First, after every access to a secure Web site such as online banking or online shopping, you should always close the browser window. This ensures that any confidential information in the browser cache (memory) is purged. Recently, I followed a fascinating journey through the mechanics of a hacker technique called browser hijacking.

In this kind of an exploit, a hacker manages to surreptitiously insert himself into any transaction initiated from the browser and potentially enables some form of recording of transacted information. It is important to note that you are vulnerable only after the hacker has inserted himself into the browser; and this usually happens only after you have inadvertently visited a rogue website. Also essential to note is that this hacker insertion is active only so long as that particular browser session window is open.

Once the window is closed, the hacker’s insertion is also purged. Bottom line – if you are going to do online banking or any other online transaction, ensure that you do not visit any other website before and after the online transactional activity from the same browser session window. Now in the IE 7.0 world, a great usability feature is that the same browser session can have multiple tabbed windows. In this scenario, the defensive driving principle dictates that we never access other Web sites from other browser tabs while doing secure transactional activity on one tab.

I have time and again emphasized the importance of regularly updating the virus signatures used by the anti-virus software for our protection. Virus signatures are like fingerprints used for identifying the malicious software (malware).

The problem with this methodology is that you can only find known culprits. Highlighting this shortcoming is a recent trend that appears to throw a monkey-wrench into this modus operandi. Cyber-crooks have come up with a technique that enables them to change the signature of a virus to defeat signature-based identification.

Although these mutating viruses are still in their infancy, the day is not far when the traditional signature-based anti-virus software will become ineffective. Attempting to counter this trend is a class of anti-malware software that is non-signature based. This may sound like a panacea but it is not – at least not yet. In many cases, these products are akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

This class of software ranges from those that will prevent installation and execution of new programs and programs not on a approved list; those that will force an unknown program to run in a segment of memory that prevents interaction with the main computer and those that will block “drive-by downloads” such as those that a Web site may attempt without first informing you about it (incidentally, this is how spyware typically ends up on our computers). Perhaps, the most promising non-signature based anti-malware product attempts to establish a baseline profile of a computer’s use and anytime the computer’s usage changes beyond a certain threshold, issues warnings of suspicious activity. However, these warnings tend to be disconcerting especially to the non-technical computer user and the real usefulness of this class of software is somewhat diminished. So, although the products do not provide the Holy Grail yet, they do bring a promise of better things to come.

Finally on a lighter note, with much fanfare and potential intrigue in the form of an international online game with a half-million-dollar prize pool to boot (check it out at www.vanishingpoint.com), Microsoft has just released its much-awaited Vista. This newest Operating System christened Vista is expected to change our computer security landscape in a big way – or so say the prognosticators at Microsoft. Next month I will devote some time to review these – so standby.

Arun Marballi has worked in the Information Technology arena for more than 20 years with extensive experience in software development, process design and network/workstation management. For comments, questions, tips or suggestions, e-mail amarballi@hotmail.com.

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