IE, Gmail bugs allow hijacking of accounts on public PCs

But Microsoft and Google both deny there's a problem

Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) browser has an unpatched vulnerability that could let hackers hijack, then access, Google Gmail accounts, a California security company warned Monday.

IE, said Santa Clara-based Cenzic in an alert issued Monday, contains an unspecified cached files bug that when combined with a cross-site request forgery flaw in the Web-based e-mail service, exposes Gmail account sign-ons and lets others access those accounts and any messages or file attachments there.

Although not a bug that can be leveraged remotely -- an attacker must have local, physical access to the PC -- as Cenzic pointed out in its alert, there are scenarios where that's not a limitation. "These vulnerabilities could be exploited such that all users of a shared computer, who use Internet Explorer and share a user account -- a common practice at computer kiosks in a library or Internet cafe -- could be vulnerable," said Cenzic.

Gmail contributes to the overall vulnerability because its URLs display attachments when viewed using the "View Source" command, the warning went on. IE, however, sports "improper use of caching directives [and] incorrect access checks on cached Internet Explorer files."

Together, the bugs could conceivably let someone at a public PC hijack any Gmail log-on credentials that had been entered on the machine since the IE cache had last been purged. IE deletes the contents of its cache only as new files are added -- and the oldest are deleted -- or when the user explicitly instructs the browser to clear the cache using the "Delete Browsing History" command.

Microsoft denied that IE even has a bug. "Microsoft has thoroughly investigated the claim and found that this is not a product vulnerability," said a company spokesman in an e-mail Tuesday morning. "In the scenario in question, an attacker would need authenticated access to the system in order to modify files located in the cache. With that level of access, an attacker could install malicious programs that would have more impact than the scenarios described."

While true, that did not address Cenzic's scenario; by design, public PCs such as those in libraries, schools or Web cafes do not require authentication to access. Microsoft was not available for clarification.

Google did not immediately respond to questions about Gmail's part in the threat.