IE doesn't lock down

We've spent years teaching users that their passwords and credit card numbers are secure on the Web as long as a little lock icon appears in the status bar of their browser windows.

Now it turns out that this isn't true. Microsoft Corp. Internet Explorer Versions 5.0 (released in 1999), 5.5, and today's 6.0 don't fully support SSL, according to Mike Benham, a white-hat security expert. SSL is the security technology that the lock icon visually assures us is enabled.

Benham posted an explanation last month on Bugtraq, a security forum. Numerous other professionals have confirmed the hole. Please read SecurityFocus HOME Mailing List: BugTraqThe issue lies with SSL certificates. These are assigned to e-commerce Web sites by "certificate authorities" such as VeriSign, Thawte, and several other companies. When used properly, these digitally signed certificates verify that your browser is communicating with a known Web site and that no one else can intercept and read your data.

The recipient of a certificate, however, can generate an "intermediate" certificate labeled,, or any other name. Benham says the Netscape and Mozilla browsers correctly check that the entire "chain" of certificates is valid but, amazingly, IE does not.

This permits a "man-in-the-middle" attack. An unscrupulous worker at an ISP, for example, could watch IE users' credit card numbers and passwords flow by, then use them or sell them.

Steve Fallin, director of the rapid response team for WatchGuard Technologies (, says this is "a pretty fundamental cryptographic flaw." He added, "If it's confirmed that it's been a flaw for three years, then it's pretty serious."

David Graves, engineering manager of, explains that the fault lies with Windows itself, which Netscape and others don't draw upon for SSL services. "A unique fix for each Windows version will need to be developed," he says.

Steve Lipman, Microsoft's director of security assurance, confirmed in an interview that the company is developing patches for all supported versions of Windows, back to Windows 98.

Microsoft's response is at The notice says exploiting the flaw would be "difficult." But Benham replies that such attacks are simple and well known. "If they were so difficult," he points out, "nobody would need SSL to begin with."

It's true that your credit card is at risk every time you give it to a waiter, and there's a $50 fraud limit. But companies that rely on SSL for more than ordering pizza have real cause for alarm.

Starting immediately, all e-commerce sites have a duty to warn vulnerable IE users to switch to another browser for sensitive transactions. That may be inconvenient, but it eliminates the danger.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Brian Livingston

Show Comments

Father’s Day Gift Guide

Brand Post

Bitdefender 2019

Bitdefender’s best-in-class security solutions have been awarded Product of the Year. Get cybersecurity that 500 MILLION users already have and trust!

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill


I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?