These words of warning apply also to the macro worksheets generated by popular PC spreadsheet programs. Although it seems natural to declare a type "application/x-msexcel-macro" in order to receive spreadsheets that automatically recalculate themselves, some of the functions in the Excel macro language have the potential to inflict damage on other worksheets and files. These warnings even apply to such seemingly innocuous things as word processor style sheets and template files! Many high end word processors have a built-in macro processing ability. An example of the way in which word processing macros can be misused is the Microsoft Word "prank macro", which has the ability to spread, virus-like, from document to document.
I have heard of at least one individual who decided he'd only be using
the C-shell to download scripts written by himself and other trusted
parties. He screened all URLs by hand to make sure they didn't end
.csh extension before downloading them.
Unfortunately the file extension is not a reliable way to determine
what a URL contains. The type of a document is determined by the Web
(HTTP) server, not the browser, and a document of type application/x-csh
can just as easily have an extension of
.txt or no
extension at all.
In short, beware of declaring an external viewer for any file that contains executable statements.
This security problem is addressed by scripting languages as Java and Safe Tcl in which dangerous functions can be disabled. There's even a prototype "Safe Perl" that can be used as a safer external viewer for perl programs.
To turn this warning off, select Preferences from Netscape's Options menu, choose "Images and Security", and uncheck the checkbox labeled "Warn before submitting forms insecurely."
Netscape servers and browsers do encryption using either a 40-bit secret key or a 128-bit secret key. Many people feel that using a 40-bit key is insecure because it's vulnerable to a "brute force" attack (trying each of the 2^40 possible keys until you find the one that decrypts the message). This was in fact demonstrated in 1995 when a French researcher used a network of workstations to crack a 40-bit encrypted message in a little over a week. It is thought that with specialized hardware, 40-bit messages can be cracked in minutes to hours. Using a 128-bit key eliminates this problem because there are 2^128 instead of 2^40 possible keys. To crack a message encrypted with such a key by brute force would take significantly longer than the age of the universe using conventional technology. Unfortunately, most Netscape users have browsers that support only 40-bit secret keys. This is because of legal restrictions on the encryption software that can be exported from the United States.
In Netscape you can tell what kind of encryption is in use for a particular document by looking at the "document" information" screen accessible from the file menu. The little key in the lower left-hand corner of the Netscape window also indicates this information. A solid key with two teeth means 128-bit encryption, a solid key with one tooth means 40-bit encryption, and a broken key means no encryption. Even if your browser supports 128-bit encryption, it may use 40-bit encryption when talking to older Netscape servers or Netscape servers outside the U.S. and Canada.
The contents of queries in forms submitted using the GET request appear in the server log files because the query is submitted as part of the URL. However, when a query is submitted as a POST request (which is often the case when submitting a fill-out form), the data you submit doesn't get logged. If you are concerned about the contents of a keyword search appearing in a public log somewhere, check whether the search script uses the GET or POST method. The easiest technique is to try an innocuous query first. If the contents of the query appear in the URL of the retrieved document, then they probably appear in the remote server's logs too.
Server/browser combinations that use data encryption, such as Netsite/Netscape, encrypt the URL request. Furthermore the encrypted request, because it is submitted as a POST request, does not appear in the server logs.
Several failsafes are built into Java to prevent it from compromising the remote user's machine. When running as applets, Java scripts are restricted with respect to what they are allowed to do by a "security manager" object. The security manager does not ordinarily allow applets to execute arbitrary system commands, to load system libraries, or to open up system device drivers such as disk drives. In addition, scripts are generally limited to reading and writing to files in a user-designated directory only (the HotJava browser allows you to set this directory, while Netscape disallows all file manipulation).
Applets are also limited in the network connections they can make: An applet is only allowed to make a network connection back to the server from which it was downloaded. This is important for reasons discussed below.
Finally, the security manager allows Java applets to read and write to the network, read and write to the local disk, but not both. This limitation was created to reduce the risk of an Applet spying on the user's private documents and transmitting the information back to the server. Since the Netscape implementation disables all local file manipulation anyway, this restriction is currently moot.
We conclude that the Java system in its current form cannot easily be made secure. Significant redesign of the language, the bytecode format, and the runtime system appear to be necessary steps toward building a higher-assurance system.
Because of the current problems with Java, the safest course is to turn Java off (from the Netscape Security Preferences menu item) except when retrieving URLs from well-known and trusted hosts.
Below are some of the specific holes present in the Java implementation distributed with Netscape 2.0 and/or 2.01.
This bug is present in version 2.0 of Netscape as well as the recent 2.01 "security enhancements" release. Although the bug was demonstrated on a Unix system, it appears that Windows systems are vulnerable as well.
More information on this bug can be found at
If an applet appears to be behaving improperly, closing the page from which it originated does not necessarily shut it down. It may be necessary to shut off the browser entirely.
Applets are supposed to be able to talk only to the server that they originated from. However in early March 1996, Steve Gibbons (a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" mailto:email@example.com) and Drew Dean (ddean@CS.Princeton.EDU) independently discovered holes in the implementation that allows Applets to make connections to any host on the Internet. This is a serious problem: once downloaded to a user's machine, the applet can now attempt to make a connection to any machine on the user's local area network, even if the LAN is protected by a firewall. Many LANs are set up so that local machines are trusted to access services that distant machines are not. As a trivial example, an Applet could open up a connection to the organization's private news server, fetch recent postings to an internal newsgroup, and transmit them back to a foreign host.
Unix users who are familiar with the Berkeley
will see that this bug represents a risk to systems that
trust each other enough to allow commands to be executed remotely.
This bug also makes it possible for Applets to collect detailed
information on network topology and name services from behind
This security hole involves Java's trusting use of the Domain Name System (DNS) to confirm that it is allowed to contact a particular host. A malfeasant using his own DNS server can create a bogus DNS entry to fool the Java system into thinking that a script is allowed to talk to a host that it is not authorized to contact.
More information about Java and security can be found at URL:
The ActiveX security model is considerably different from Java applets. Java achieves security by restricting the behavior of applets to a set of safe actions. ActiveX, on the other hand, places no restrictions on what a control can do. Instead, each ActiveX control can be digitally "signed" by its author in such a way that the signature cannot be altered or repudiated. The digital signatures can then be certified by a trusted "certifying authority", such as VeriSign, to create the equivalent of a shrink-wrapped software package. If you download a signed ActiveX control and it crashes your machine, you'll at least know who to blame.
This security model places the responsibility for the computer system's security squarely on the user's head. Before the browser downloads an ActiveX control that hasn't been signed at all, or that has been signed but certified by an unknown certifying authority, the browser presents a dialog box warning the user that this action may not be safe. The user can elect to abort the transfer, or may continue the transfer and take his chances.
The ActiveX certification process ensures that ActiveX controls cannot be distributed anonymously and that a control cannot be tampered with by third parties after its publication. However, the certification process does not ensure that a control will be well-behaved. Although it is unlikely that signed and certified ActiveX controls will behave in a malicious fashion, it is not impossible. To illustrate this point, software developer Fred McLain (firstname.lastname@example.org) recently published an ActiveX control named Exploder. This control, which has been fully signed and certified, performs a clean shutdown of any Windows95 machine that downloads it. The shutdown occurs automatically soon after the user views an HTML page that contains the Exploder control (using Microsoft Internet Explorer version 3.0 or higher). While Exploder does not cause any data loss, a less friendly control might reformat the user's hard disk or plant a virus. In fact, it's conceivable that an ActiveX control could take some subtle action, such as transmitting confidential configuration information from the user's computer to a server on the Internet, that would escape detection for a long period of time.
ActiveX can be turned off completely from the Options menu of Microsoft Internet Explorer. Look for references to "active content" and choose the "most secure" option.
Cookies cannot be used to "steal" information about you or your computer system. They can only be used to store information that you have provided at some point. To give a benign example, if you fill out a form giving your favorite color, a server can turn this information into a cookie and send it to your browser. The next time you contact the site, your browser will return the cookie, allowing the server to alter background color of its pages to suit your preferences.
However cookies can be used for more controversial purposes. Each access your browser makes to a Web site leaves some information about you behind, creating a gossamer trail across the Internet. Among the tidbits of data left along this trail are the name and IP address of your computer, the brand of browser you're using, the operating system you're running, the URL of the Web page you accessed, and the URL of the page you were last viewing. Without cookies, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to follow this trail systematically to learn much about your Web browsing habits. They would have to reconstruct your path by correlating hundreds or thousands of individual server logs. With cookies, the situation changes considerably.
The DoubleClick Network is a system created by the DoubleClick Corporation to create profiles of individuals using the World Wide Web and to present them with advertising banners customized to their interests. DoubleClick's primary customers are Web sites looking to advertise their services. Each member of the DoubleClick Network becomes a host for the advertising of other members of the network. When a Web site joins DoubleClick it creates advertisements for its services and submits them to DoubleClick's server. The Web site then modifies its HTML pages to include an <IMG> graphic that points to DoubleClick. When a user goes to view one of these modified HTML pages, her browser makes a call to DoubleClick's server to retrieve the graphic. The server chooses one of its member's advertisements and returns it to the browser. If the user reloads the page, a different advertisement appears. If the user clicks on the graphic, her browser jumps to the advertised site. Currently many hundreds of sites belong to DoubleClick.
From the user's point of view DoubleClick's graphics appear no different from any other Web advertisement, and there's no visible indication of anything special about the graphic. However, there is an important difference. When a user first connects to the DoubleClick server to retrieve a graphic, the server assigns the browser a cookie that contains a unique identification number. From that time forward whenever the user connects to any Web site that subscribes to the DoubleClick Network, her browser returns the identification number to DoubleClick's server, allowing the server to recognize her. Over a period of time DoubleClick compiles a list of which member sites the user has visited and revisited, using this information to create a profile of the user's tastes and interests. With this profile in hand the DoubleClick server can select advertising that is likely to be of interest to the user. It can also use this information to compile valuable feedback for its member Web sites, such as providing them with audience profiles and rating the effectiveness of the advertisements.
Although names and e-mail addresses are not part of
the information that DoubleClick records, other information that the
browser leaves behind is sufficient, in many cases, to identify the
user. See Server Logs and Privacy for more
information. For this reason many people are uncomfortable with
tracked by DoubleClick, examine your browser's cookies file. On Unix
systems using Netscape, the cookies file can be found in your home
directory in the file
~/.netscape/cookies. If a line like
then you are carrying a DoubleClick cookie.ad.doubleclick.net FALSE / FALSE 942195440 IAA d2bbd5
Windows users will find the equivalent information in the file
cookies.txt, located in their
C:\Programs\Netscape\Navigator directory, while Macintosh
users should look in their System Folder under
Users of Microsoft Internet Explorer should examine the files located
Current versions of both Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer offer the option of alerting you whenever a server attempts to give your browser a cookie. If you turn this alert on, you will have the option of refusing cookies. You should also manually delete any cookies that you have already collected. The easiest way to do this is to remove the cookies file entirely.
The drawback to this scheme is that many servers will offer the same cookie repeatedly even after you refuse to accept the first one. This rapidly leads to a nuisance situation. Before you panic over cookies, it's worth remembering that the vast majority of cookies are benign attempts to improve your Web browsing experience, not intrusions on your privacy.