July 22, 1996 10:00 AM ET
IE 3.0 applets will earn certification
By _Norvin Leach_ and _Michael Moeller_
In preparation for the mid-August launch of Internet Explorer 3.0, Microsoft
Corp. next week will announce tools and services that let vendors digitally
sign ActiveX, Java and Netscape Communications Corp. plug-in components.
As a result, users of Internet Explorer 3.0 will be able to identify the
creator of an Internet-based applet before downloading it.
But for some IS managers, this approach misses the point of Internet security
by a long shot. Many say they are less interested in knowing who built a
component than in providing seamless protection for users, as the Java
"sandbox" model does.
The Microsoft model, designed to provide users with the same level of
security found in shrink-wrapped software, is based primarily on a level of
trust and market pressure to keep ISVs honest.
To put the digital signature architecture in place, VeriSign Inc. and, in the
future, other certificate authorities will issue digital certificates to ISVs
for a $20 fee. Several hundred ActiveX controls will be digitally signed by
the time Internet Explorer 3.0 ships, sources said.
But such a certificate does not authenticate the specific applet--it only
certifies that the vendor has pledged not to build any malicious code into its
software. "If a user downloads a buggy piece of signed code, then he will
never go back to that vendor again," said Rob Price, group product manager for
Internet security at Microsoft.
Beyond the credibility aspect, the signature concept raises a broader issue
for some IS managers.
"Just the fact that they have to create this kind of workaround causes me
concern," said Eric Goldreich, information manager with Sheppard, Mullin,
Richter & Hampton, a Los Angeles law firm.
Other IS managers are worried that digital signatures may add complexity to
an already complicated method of trying to manage who downloads what from the
Internet Explorer 3.0 will modify a user's system files to detect digital
certificates as components are downloaded. Once found, a dialog box will
appear, stating where the component came from and asking if users want to
continue downloading the component.
System administrations will be able to restrict users from downloading any
components, and users will be able to list "trusted" companies that can load
components onto their client machine without confirmation.
Security "should be something the end user isn't aware of," said Erik
Goldoff, computer specialist for the Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta.
"End users don't even understand Internet busy signals today."
The issue of component security has not been widely discussed because the
technology is only beginning to mature; Internet Explorer 3.0 is the first
browser to apply the digital signature approach.
Two Microsoft competitors, Netscape and Sun Microsystems Inc., are adding
digital signature schemes as a means of extending the functionality of
software and components found on the Internet. However, officials at both
companies believe digital signatures alone perpetuate a flawed model found in
"Digital signatures are just a part of the answer, not the whole solution,"
said Jeff Treuhaft, director of security at Netscape, of Mountain View, Calif.
"Besides, you need to sign the code, not the vendor."