Does it take two browsers to make surfing safe?

PHP author says using one browser is insane because nine out of 10 Web sites having cross-site scripting holes

The creator of a popular Web server scripting language is so nervous about hackers stealing his personal information that he takes an unusual precaution: He launches a pair of browsers when he takes to the Internet.

Rasmus Lerdorf, the programmer who authored PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor), an open-source language that can be embedded into HTML to produce dynamic pages, admits to practicing what he calls "hygienic" surfing, operating two browsers at a time.

Running a single browser is simply "insane," claimed Lerdorf during a keynote address last week at the MySQL Conference in Santa Clara, Calif., because of "nine out of 10 Web sites having cross-site scripting holes." That includes the portal of his current employer, Yahoo, where Lerdorf is an infrastructure architecture engineer. To protect himself, Lerdorf uses Apple's Safari to surf personal sites and Mozilla's Firefox for everything else.

Lerdorf gets one thing right, agreed Alfred Huger, the senior director of Symantec's security response group. He said that cross-site scripting vulnerabilities, usually XSS for short, are easily the most common kind of Web bug.

XSS flaws let attackers inject malicious HTML and scripts -- including those written in JavaScript or PHP -- into legitimate, if vulnerable, Web sites. Often the attack is delivered via e-mail, with a link to what appears to be the real deal. In fact, the link includes the malicious code to trigger the vulnerability. Dupe users into clicking those links, and attackers can surreptitiously collect usernames and passwords as they're typed, or they can raid the passwords for other sites stored in the browser.

Undercutting XSS exploits

So why are two browsers better than one if the Web site, not the browser, is the threat?

"First of all, [Rasmus] Lerdorf is a very smart guy," said Huger. "It would work. But only as long as you used one browser to surf to all the important sites, like your online bank and the sites you shop, and never used that browser for anything else."

The idea is to separate all the surfing where personal information may be exposed from all other Web activities. "Theoretically, the places you trust are less likely to less likely to have cross-site scripting vulnerabilities, like your large, name-brand bank," said Huger. "So the browser you use to go to those sites is safer."

And if a cross-site scripting exploit is launched by a questionable site viewed through the second browser, that browser won't store any critical information, such as bank account passwords, for the attacker to steal. Some people have taken that strategy even farther, said Huger, by splitting personal and other activities between two computers.

"It's not a bad idea, simply because it's an extra layer of defense," added Roger Thompson, chief technology officer at Exploit Prevention Labs.

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