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 ;-) ).

  • There's only one reason I don't use IE anymore at home. SPYWARE. Take your fully patched IE and browse over to (where the best flash is). If you're using IE, your computer just got owned.

    Microsoft can come up with security policies that keep me from being a stupid user. Their security policies don't mean jack when a banner ad can hijack my machine.
  • The simple answer to the question is: by being careful. Download from a trusted server.
    <P>The problem of course is that you have no such option with IE. All IE distribution, signed or not, is insecure because I have no way of checking the code, nor can I take it to anyone who can. I have to trust Microsoft, one of the worst programming companies in the world with a two decade record of sloppy workmanship, dishonesty and apathy towards its users.

    <P>The writer says that Mozilla has had "its share of security problem (as has IE)" but quickly skips on hoping that, as is MS policy, the reader will treat all insecurities as equal. Of course, the truth is thet IE flaws regularly allow total and easy compromise of the user's machine, while Moz has only had a handful of such massive breaches. The combination of IE and Outlook has brought many an IT, indeed many an entire company, to its knees for days on end. The one time I was in British Telecom Headquarters there were notices up everywhere telling the staff not to even open their email as an IE/Outlook virus was in the system, and had been for two days at that point. BT have huge resoruces and are not in the habit of downloading their IE updates from Warez sites! Did that help them? No. Did it recover any of the hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost productivity? No. They trusted Microsoft and they got burned.

    <P>Who cares if that sort of work is signed or not? Signitures are not a panacea. IE is and always will be a third-rate backdoor to your hard drive because it is badly designed and badly programmed (just how hard is it to implement PNG anyway? 8 Years hard?!) and no one is doing anything about it.

    <P>By the way, I use Opera - it's faster than Firefox. I download it from the company site. The point is not so much the server, it's that I trust the company behind it, just as I trust the programmers behind Firefox.
  • Verisign can also sign for spyware (excuse me, adware) programs, such as gator and bonzaibuddy. There is no reason to trust a program with a verisign certificate more than one without one.
  • It looks as if Microsoft put one of their cronies to start a flame war -- poor guy. How much are they paying you to take a hit for the team?

  • Seriously, the authenticode system and signing is waste of time.

    The vast majority of users don't actually care whether the thing they are downloading is signed - they are easily confused by just another technical nicety. You wouldn't believe how frequently I have to clean users machines from malicious software even when the user has a choice.

    I'm sure a malicious person could put a web link which would say "click on the button to have your credit card stolen" and people would still click on it, just because they can.

    Note this does not make FireFox better than IE, it just makes the whole argument spurious. The real issue is the lack of choice in any browser when things happen without user knowledge, either by bad design, or bad coding leading to exploits.
  • I have used Firefox and IE, in fact on my main computer I use IE all the time. I have no issues w/ spyware and malware, I browse sites I know are not sending me stuff and I keep Spybo Search & Destory up to date, schedule Virus Scans and Updates and don't have an issue.
    I hate having to install things like flash or some other extension to get what I want when I want it. Sometimes I just want to browse one site and not have to worry I have everything configured correctly.

    What makes Firefox the best browser? From everything I read, its just because it's popular w/ people on Slashdot
  • sychophants, pull your heads out of bill gate's ass and get some fresh air then maybe you will think clearly again...
  • Hehe funny, I must had installed Firefox twenty times and I never saw a 7zip or an empty dialog box, anyway keep your IE and I will keep using Firefox....

    Funny to see MS scarry like this, beware the Google Sand man gonna get ya!
  • That was surprisingly long for derived bullshit.
  • I think a better question is how can I trust Microsoft. Just because a company pays for "signed certificates" doesn't imply they are "trustworthy" or that the products can be trusted. MS has demonstrated that very clearly.
  • firefox uses mirrors because they arent microsoft. They havent been overcharging customers for 20 years to be able to have bottomless bank accounts... since they have had 11 million downloads, they need some means of bandwidth and infrastructure to support that.

    Obviously their lack of "overcharging end users" renders them less likely to "be able to spend millions" on the "systems" required to facilitate 11 million downloads.

    Also, firefox is forced to integrate with microsofts "awesome" operating system.... clearly, that wouldnt have anything to do with any errors.. It doesnt run flawlessly on linux distributions or anything.

    sarcasm intended
  • First of all, I went to the advertised, and was redirected to the real page at

    Funny thing when i went to i got redirected to

    Should Microsoft also not be trusted
  • I've installed Firefox at least 20 times on friends pcs - usually after I've had to cleanup the mess from Windows XP SP1 and IE. Never once have I encountered any of the problems you describe.
  • You don't trust "ip addresses", but you trust "domain names"? Do you know that one is just a symbolic name for the other?

    Do you realize that trust has very many levels, and that Microsoft's problems are at the most fundamental - that the developers and management at Microsoft are completely untrusted? Their skills at making secure software are completely untrusted and unbelieved. No matter how many times Microsoft code is signed, the signature just tells us that we can be sure that the software is insecure.
  • Is it only me or this is a lame excuse about "digital certificates"...

    Hey!! not everything is digital certificates, 999.99% is also the DESIGN OF THE PROGRAM.. IE is INSECURE BY DESIGN..

    So dont try to cover this holes with a bunch of crap about I DON'T TRUST FIREFOX..

    Why dont you and the zillions of programmers @ microsoft try to do something good and redesign IE from scratch ?

    That will break like 10000000 things right ?

    So lets keep insecure and continue selling Office, the real cash cow.

    Microsoft dont care about IE or security or stuff, they care about PROFIT!

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