03:11 PM

Microsoft Hones IE 7's Drive-by-Download Defenses

Developers working on Internet Explorer 7 are fortifying the browser against stealth downloads carrying malicious software.

While Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates told security professionals that security is job number one on Tuesday, he's leaving it up to developers like those working up the next version of Internet Explorer to make it happen.

Internet Explorer 7 (IE 7), said Gary Schare, director of product management for IE, will reduce the chance that spyware spreaders can use silent drive-by downloads to infect PCs with malicious software.

"Drive-by download" is the term for the hacker practice of using vulnerabilities, usually those in a browser, but sometimes within Windows, to install software when users simply surf to a malicious Web site.

"There are two primary ways that drive-by downloads are done, either through a vulnerability in IE itself or an add-on, or because the user has the security setting set too low," said Schare.

IE 7, which is currently in beta preview for Windows XP, will slash some of the first and offer a tool to help users avoid the second, Schare promised.

The new browser -- set to release for XP before the end of the year and to be included with the new Windows Vista when it ships around the same time -- further reduces the attack surface area, said Schare, by disabling most ActiveX controls tucked inside Windows.

Called "ActiveX Opt-in," the feature turns off all but a handful of ActiveX controls, and requires explicit user consent for others to run within IE 7. "We're going to disable nearly every control," said Schare, "especially the ones which don't need to be in Internet Explorer."

Although the list hasn't been finalized, Schare said that among the few controls which would be enabled off the bat would be Flash's and Acrobat's, as well as the one used by Windows/Microsoft Update.

"The ones that really matter are those in Windows," Schare said, acknowledging that Microsoft had to repeatedly patch older versions of IE against ActiveX-based flaws during 2005. Those bugs all involved ActiveX controls within Windows itself that were not intended to be used by IE, but could be used to hack into a PC.

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