Security Issues That Aren’t – Part 2


Internet Explorer Team Blog

Security Issues That Aren’t – Part 2

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Part 1 of Security Issues That Aren't gave rise to a lot of interesting comments. Hearing back from you is really helpful in terms of understanding what issues folks are dealing with and where we need to focus our attention. To those of you who suggested I should worry more about security issues that are instead of those that aren’t: I do! That’s exactly why I chose the subject: The fewer non-security reports I need to investigate, the more time I can spend on more severe problems. So bear with me … today’s topic is IE crashes and hangs.

A crash is a crash is a crash – or is it? In terms of security implications there are huge differences; a useful way of categorizing crashes is by looking at how they can affect the user.

Remote Code Execution

This is the worst case scenario. When can a crash result in a remote code execution vulnerability? The canonical example is an exploitable buffer overrun (BO). When the BO is encountered inadvertently, the application typically crashes due to an illegal memory access. However, an attacker could be able to exploit the bug to inject code into the process memory space and transfer control to it. Not every BO is exploitable, but many are.

Denial of Service

A crash falls into the less severe denial of service (DoS) category if it cannot be exploited for code execution. An attacker can crash your browser when you visit his malicious site, but cannot do any harm beyond that. The classic example for DoS is a null pointer dereference. Read access beyond a buffer boundary (as opposed to write access, which is usually exploitable) can also give rise to a DoS crash.

The most severe types of DoS are

  • Mailable DoS: The IE crash also affects mail clients (e.g. Outlook Express) that host IE to render HTML mails. An attacker could then craft an email that will crash the mail client when you try to open or preview the mail.
    In the worst case, you might not be able to delete the mail or even open the mail client. Recent versions of OE and Outlook protect against this by not showing the preview pane if the client had previously crashed.
  • BSoD DoS: The root cause of a blue screen DoS is usually a driver problem. However, the browser or mail client can be the means to trigger the BSoD and are thus involved in the crash.


In a hang scenario, the browser becomes unresponsive, forcing the user to kill the process from Task Manager and restart it. This can be easily achieved without exploiting any bugs, e.g. by scripting an infinite loop on a web page. Again, an attacker cannot do any harm beyond forcing the user to restart the browser. Hangs are not exploitable for code execution and are always low level DoS issues.

We are continuously working on improving the robustness of IE. Investigating crashes and hangs – such as those reported to us through online error reporting – is a big part of that. I hope I have given you some insight into how we think about these, in particular how we prioritize them in terms of security.

- Patrick

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