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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Sat 23rd Jan 2010

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The recent revelation of a major security flaw in Internet Explorer makes this a good time to consider the alternatives

 By Claudine Beaumont, Technology Editor
Microsoft has confirmed that another vulnerability in Internet Explorer could leave computers open to hackers

It’s been a worrying week for computer users. Internet Explorer, the world’s most popular web browser, was found to have a serious security flaw that could have put millions of computer users at risk from cyber criminals and hackers.

The browser is thought to be the weak link that allowed hackers to carry out a sophisticated and highly targeted cyber attack against Google earlier this week, which resulted in the search giant reconsidering its operation in China.

It also sent entire nations in to a spin. The governments of France and Germany warned their citizens not to use Internet Explorer, and to switch instead to a different browser. The British government declined to follow suit.

Microsoft has now released a “patch”, to plug the hole in the browser’s code and protect it against the vulnerabilities that allowed Chinese hackers to break in to the Google email accounts of dissidents and human rights activists, and compromise the security of other large corporations.

But many computer users are wondering whether they should consider using a different web browser, such as Mozilla’s Firefox or Google Chrome.

“The patch should resolve the current problems with Internet Explorer, but the big question is, will people install it?,” asks Graham Cluley, a security expert with Sophos. “Some people can be very lackadaisical about installing these software updates, but they really need to start to get in to the habit of updating their computers – companies such as Microsoft release these updates for a good reason.”

Cluley says that Internet Explorer 6 is the most vulnerable web browser, yet it is still used by big government agencies such as the Ministry of Defence. This is a hangover from the early days of the web, when IT departments wrote systems and software that was only compatible with Internet Explorer 6, making it tricky and expensive to migrate to more stable and secure versions of the browser further down the line.

“If you’re using Internet Explorer 6 at home, you should upgrade to internet Explorer 8, the latest and greatest version of the browser,” advises Cluley. “It’s also worth considering a different browser altogether. The new version of Firefox is very good at updating itself to keep web users protected. It will do a much better job of securing the whole web experience.”

Despite the global dominance of Internet Explorer – it accounts for 63 per cent of the whole browser market – there are plenty of alternatives available to computer users. One of the most popular is Firefox, which has a 25 per cent share of the browser market worldwide, but is attracting lots of new users in Europe, accounting for 40 per cent of that search market, just five per cent less than Microsoft.

Indeed, while Graham Cluley says that no web browser is completely secure, he thinks diversity in the browser market benefits everyone. “Internet Explorer is attractive to hackers and virus writers because it dominates the market,” he says.

“Encouraging a bit of variety makes it harder for hackers to impact lots of people.”




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