How can I trust Firefox?

How can I trust Firefox?

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[Fixed issues with images; sorry]

[Removed the clear=all problem; thanks for pointing it out]

[Added a follow-up post here]

Recently, a lot of volunteers donated money to the Firefox project to pay for a two-page advert in the New York Times.

If only they had spent some of that money on improving the security of their users by, say, purchasing a VeriSign code signing certificate.

Let me explain...

One of the many criticisms of Internet Explorer is that customers are fooled into downloading spyware or adware on to their computers. This is indeed a legitimate problem, and one of the ways you can reduce the risks of getting unwanted software on your machine is to only accept digitally signed software from vendors that you trust. Every time you download a random piece of software from a random location, you're taking your chances with your PC and all the information stored on it. You wouldn't take candy from strangers, would you?

In order to help protect customers, the default install of Internet Explorer will completely block the installation of ActiveX controls that are not signed, and it will suggest that you do not install any unsigned programs that you might try to download. Of course, just because a piece of software is signed (or you have the MD5 hashes for it) doesn't mean it isn't nasty; it just provides some evidence you can use to make a trust decision about the software (in logical terms, it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for trusting software).

So what happens when a typical user decides it's time to download Firefox and enjoy the secure browsing experience that it has to offer? Well, sit back, relax, and let me take you on a journey.

First of all, I went to the advertised, and was redirected to the real page at
From there I easily located the download link, and clicking on the it gave me the following dialog:

Download Firefox image

Hmmmm, wait a minute. I went to, not I don't have any idea where that place is, and it sure makes me nervous. IE has informed me that "If you do not trust the source, do not run or save this software."

Do I really trust a bunch of kids at some random university I've never heard of? Hopefully, the average person will decide that they do not trust this web site, and they will click Cancel. No Firefox for you!

But being a brave soul (and not caring if my Virtual PC image dies a horrible death) I click Run. A few seconds later, I get the following dialog:

Picture of unsigned Firefox executable warning


Not only does this software come from a completely random university server, but I have no way of checking if it is the authentic Firefox install or some maliciously altered copy. (I sure hope those 10 million people who have downloaded Firefox so far haven't all download backdoors into their system...). Since "You should only run software from publishers you trust" and since the publisher cannot be verified, I should click Don't Run (which is, thankfully, the default).

But, again, being a brave soul I click Run.

I am then greeted with this dialog:

'Picture of random setup dialog --

Oops, my network connection died. But still... that kind of unintelligible dialog doesn't do anything to make me trust the installer. Maybe this is a trojaned copy of Firefox after all?

Forging blindly ahead, I download the software again (this time coming from -- I kid you not! -- a numeric IP address, the bastion of spammers and phishers and all manner of other digital rogues) and run the installer. This time things are actually looking good:

·Installer runs fine

·I accept the defaults

·Firefox starts

·It asks if I want to make it the default browser; no thanks

·I get this dialog (seriously):

Picture of blank Message Box (not even a title bar)

Hmmm, a completely blank MessageBox. Well, OK is the default choice, so I guess I should accept that. No idea what it will do to my system though.

My confidence in this software is growing in leaps and bounds.

I decide to reboot the VPC just in case that dialog was trying to tell me something important. After rebooting, I boot up Firefox and it seems to be working fine.

I decide to install some extensions because, hey, everyone on Slashdot loves them so much. I browse to the extensions page and decide that the Sidebar sounds cool (I love Amazon, and Amazon loves my credit card). Clicking on the link brings up this dialog:

Picture of Firefox Extension Install dialog

It dutifully tells me the extension isn't signed (good), but makes the default choice Install Now (bad). This is the opposite of what Internet Explorer decided to default to when it detected unsigned code (ref: above). Now tell me again, which is the more secure browser?

(Just so I don't get inundated with comments about this, Firefox does disable the Install button for a couple of seconds when the dialog is first displayed, but by the time I had finished reading the text in the dialog it was enabled and ready to go).

Next, I want to go somewhere that uses Flash (heh, coz we all know I love Flash!). I'll try the Ocean's 12 official web site,, which detects that Flash isn't installed and gives me a link to install it. Clicking on the link, I get taken to the Macromedia page, where I can download Flash. Firefox prevents me from running the executable straight away, and forces me to save it to disk. That's probably a good move for most users, although personally I tend to click Run inside IE because I know it will warn me about unsigned programs. Nevertheless, it is but a minor speed bump on the way to malware infection, as we shall see in the next step.

Once the file is saved, I can open it from the little downloads dialog that pops up. The problem is, there is no indication as to whether or not the file is digitally signed; I just get the usual "This could be a virus; do you want to run it anyway?" dialog. But without any evidence to base my trust decision on (where it came from, who the publisher was, etc.), what should I do? Of course, the right thing to do would be to delete the file and never install Flash, but I really want to install it so I guess I have to go ahead and run the thing.

What's really frightening though is that there is a "Don't ask me again" option in this dialog... which means that if you check the box you could end up running any old garbage on your system without so much as a single warning. Doesn't sound so secure to me...

So anyway, Flash installs and I can view the Ocean's 12 website OK. But now what if there's a security bug found in Flash and I want to disable it? With Internet Explorer, I can simply set the Internet Zone to "High" security mode (to block all ActiveX controls), or I could go to the Tools -> Manage Add-Ons dialog if I just wanted to disable Flash until an update was available. How do I disable Flash inside Firefox? Good question. I don't see any menu items or Tools -> Options settings, the Tools -> Extensions dialog doesn't help, and Flash isn't even listed in Add / Remove Programs.

According to Google, I have to download yet another unsigned extension to enable the blocking of Flash content. Ho-hum. The first download mirror that the page sent me to gave a 403: Forbidden error; luckily the second mirror worked OK and, once again playing digital Russian Roulette, I installed the extension and rebooted Firefox twice (yes twice) as instructed to install it. To be fair, the extension is pretty cool, but that's not the point: How do I know I didn't just install some terrible malware from a compromised web server? Who owns anyway, and can their admins be trusted? And what if I accidentally browsed to some site hosting a malicious Flash movie whilst trying to download the extension?

(Always remember the Ten Immutable Laws of Security, and in particular Law #1: If a bad guy can persuade you to run his program on your computer, it's not your computer any more.)

To continue my benevolent fairness, I actually think Firefox is a nice browser. It seems to render HTML without any problems, and the tabs are nice for browsing Slashdot. But just because it doesn't currently have any unpatched security vulnerabilities talked about in the press doesn't mean they don't exist (Secunia currently lists three unpatched vulnerabilities, for example).

Mozilla has had its share of security vulnerabilities in the past (just as IE has), and -- despite what the open source folk might say -- Mozilla keeps their security bugs hidden from the public (just like Microsoft does) in order to protect their customers from coming under attack by malicious users. Note that this is not a bad thing; all vendors should treat security bugs responsibly to ensure customers are not put at undue risk. It's just something you should be aware of. Just because you don't see any unpatched security bugs in Bugzilla doesn't mean they don't exist, either.

But the thing that makes me really not trust the browser is that it doesn't matter how secure the original code is if the typical usage pattern of the browser requires users to perform insecure actions.

·Installing Firefox requires downloading an unsigned binary from a random web server

·Installing unsigned extensions is the default action in the Extensions dialog

·There is no way to check the signature on downloaded program files

·There is no obvious way to turn off plug-ins once they are installed

·There is an easy way to bypass the "This might be a virus" dialog

This is what the "Secure Deployment" part of Microsoft's SD3+C campaign is all about; we design and develop secure software, but we make sure that customers can deploy it securely as well.

I personally don't care if people choose to run Firefox or Linux or any other software on their computers -- it's their computer, after all -- but we'll never get past the spyware / adware problem if people continue to think that installing unsigned code from random web sites is A Good Idea.

So, at this point in time, installing (and using) Firefox encourages exactly the sort of behaviour we are trying to steer people away from, and to me that makes it part of the problem, not the solution.

(Thanks to Mike and Robert and the other folk who gave this a once-over before posting; any errors are still mine though ;-) ).

  • "This page doesnt even render correctly in Firefox. Half the article is scrolled way down - you wouldnt even know it is there!! what the..... "

    Are you really surprised? This is a Microsoft page. Those pages are designed exclusively for IE. Remember the MSN home page debacle with Opera a few years ago?
  • To each his own. I think you pose a lot of good arguments. However, when I originally switched to FireFox I did so because of 2 features. Tabbed browsing and Pop-up blocking.

    Tabbed browsing is simply amazing, the first time I saw it I was shocked neither myself nor anyone else had thought of this sooner. It made (makes) so much sense. Right now, as I sit here, I have 4 tabs open in FireFox. To accomplish the same thing I would need 4 separate windows with IE. Being an IT person, I already have about 6 separate windows running, why do I need 4 more added to the already cluttered taskbar?

    I'm not going to touch the pop-up issue, I think we all know and agree on that. Thankfully, IE6 has this (I think, haven't used IE6 much since I went to FF).

    Another thing that I haven't seen mentioned. FireFox is available on a variety of platforms AND works on all of them with relatively little difference. My place of work (print shop) has quite a few Macs, as well as a few UNIX boxes that I use (2 FreeBSD boxes, one live, one development, and a laptop, also FreeBSD, sitting here right now) and no matter where I go: Windows, OSX, UNIX, Linux, FireFox looks the same everywhere. I can even share my bookmarks easily! Out of all of those, IE only works on Windows and OSX. I've tried using it on OSX and frankly there are a lot of instances where it just doesn't display things correctly. Let alone the fact it displays things DIFFERENTLY from the Windows version. What's that about?

    I'm not trying to convince you of anything. You seem intelligent enough to make your own decisions; you even took the time to try FireFox. However, what I will say is that your entry, in my opinion is nothing more than obnoxious slander, and quite honestly, hypocrisy. If you were expecting FireFox to be without fault, you were one naive developer. Every program has had its faults. The big question is how long will it take the Mozilla team to rectify those mistakes? Then let's compare to how long it will take Internet Explorer to become "safe." As I see it, IE has had 6 major versions, countless minor versions, and we're still seeing bug after bug. FireFox had its first major release, and you've already condemned it.

    If you want something that hits a little closer to home, let’s face the fact that after one major release FireFox has already seized up a sizable chunk of the browser market. Even if it doesn’t work right, crashes five times a day and has to have 2 service packs, you know what, it will still be ahead of Windows 98, or Windows 2000. Has 2003 had a service pack yet? It’s been out a year, I imagine it’d about due for one.
  • Hehe, this blog is M$ BS all over, i have never had trouble or suspicion obtaining and getting firefox, and i DO know better :P
  • I see, and agree, with most of what you have said about the process with Firefox, but I have a big issue with the "many criticisms of Internet Explorer".

    The big criticism isn't that people are fooled into fooled into downloading spyware or adware - it's that some site have the ad/spyware install without users even knowing. There is no prompt, there is no cert auth, an ActiveX control does it for them.

    Granted IE bocks these by default, but many people change their settings (not knowing what they are doing) and open themselves up for the problem(s).

    There is no "fooling" going on, it's a combo of uninformed users and usability issues in the software.
  • there is a link on firefox website that lets you download firefox right from their servers... may be you chose a mirror. IE has got tons of problems with phishing and opening backdoors, ff doesn't. ff is better standard compliance, ie isn't. ofcourse it has many other cool features that ie doesn't. and guess what when i tried to install the software of my new HP laser printer, it said that the driver is not digitally signed which i assume is paying M$ money...
  • How can I trust Firefox. I can if it is not run of windows. The questions is how can we trust windows? The code is hidden, and the only people that get to see it are those are paid to. Now how does that inspire confidance. For all we know it is not Firefox or IE that is insecure. How come I do not get viruses on my Mac? How come I don't have to reboot every time make a change on my Mac? How come is the Blackjack port open by default under windows and there is traffic going back and forth. How come companies such as Lexmark can install spyware on your computer and get away with it. It is not the university kids that you have to worry about folks. They are by far not your worst enemies. The only person you should fear is the big good wolf that cries every time he is cheated. The powers to be are chaning and finally the deception is being exposed. Do not follow the decption of the magician, look straight into the looking glass. Then, and only then, will you see the real problem, the real desease. Can it be cured? I don't know, the choice is for you to make.
  • Peter,

    Scary world eh? When untrusted, open source, trojan horsed software is STILL better than IE.

    You would think M$ would be light years ahead of a free, donation based, browser in terms of reliability, performance, features... Oh wait, IE is how OLD??

    Guess I'll just keep downloading those "Windows Security Updates" while I have NO idea what is actually going on. Blind trust in M$ is ok. Blind trust in FF is bad.

    Thanks for the heads up!
  • Unlike IE it is possible to build Firefox from source.
    If you are really paranoid, you can download the source, look at it, and build it yourself.
  • I know when I tell anyone to install anything I simply say "Click Next and Agree to everything." This is because even beginning to explain the significance of certificates and how to verify them as being true, valid, and factual.
    For that matter, I don't think even I understand what is "Verified to be 'Right'". I didn't know Verisign made certificates for downloads. How do I know you're not making this up.
  • I'm confused Peter... I always thought that security was best accomplished by security. E.g., you would have your operation system and then applications on top of those. That way if the application is compromised, the system isn't.

    How does that work while browsing with part of the Kernel? It seems that if IE is compromised, then you're Operating System is compromised. But if Windows was worth anything, then it would only allow the application to be compromised and no super user exploit would be possible.

  • "This page doesnt even render correctly in Firefox. Half the article is scrolled way down - you wouldnt even know it is there!! what the....."

    Is it Firefox's fault it doesn't render a site that was desgined specifically for a standards bashing browser.
  • Let's compare versions.. IE has had 6(?) versions to get this web doohikie right and it's still chock full of holes.

    FF has JUST NOW come out of beta and you're *struggling* to find reasons why I shouldn't trust it!

    What happens when FF matures and spits out version 2 or 3? You gonna admit defeat or code something worthy for a change?
  • "we'll never get past the spyware / adware problem"

    well I can't speak for the rest of you, but my spyware/adware problems ended when I installed firefox.

  • There seems to be a funny bug in IE; I hit <ctrl>-tab to open up a new tap, and nothing happens. That's the only come back I can think of.
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