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Saturday, January 24, 2009

How Much Security Will You Tolerate?

By Adrian Lane

I have found a unique way to keep anyone from using my iMac. While family & friends love the display, they do not use my machine. Many are awed that they can run Windows in parallel to the Mac OS, and the sleek appearance and minimal footprint has created many believers- but after a few seconds they step away from the keyboard. Why? Because they cannot browse the Internet. My copy of Firefox has NoScript, Flashblock, cookie acknowledgement, and a couple of other security related ad-ons. But having to click the Flash logo, or to acknowledge a cookie, is enough to make them leave the room. “I was going to read email, but I think I will wait until I fly home”.

I have been doing this so long I never even notice. I never stopped to think that every web page requires a couple extra mouse clicks to use, but I always accepted that it was worth it. The advantages to me in terms of security are clear. And I always get that warm glow when I find myself on a site for the first time and see 25 Flash icons littering the screen and a dozen cookie requests for places I have never heard of. But I recognize that I am in the minority. The added work seems to so totally ruin the experience and completely turn them off to the Internet. My wife even refused to use my machine, and while I think the authors of NoScript deserve special election into the Web Security Hall of Fame (Which given the lack of funding, currently resides in Rich’s server closet), the common user thinks of NoScript as a curse.

And for the first time I think I fully understand their perspective, which is the motivation for this post. I too have discovered my tolerance limit. I was reading rsnake’s post on RequestPolicy Firefox extension. This looks like a really great idea, but acts like a major work inhibitor. For those not fully aware, I will simply say most web sites make requests for content from more than just one site. In a nutshell you implicitly trust more than just the web site you are currently visiting, but whomever provides content on the page. The plugin’s approach is a good one, but it pushed me over the limit of what I am willing to accept.

For every page I display I am examining cookies, Flash, and site requests. I know that web security is one of the major issues we face, but the per-page analysis is not greater than the time I spend on many pages looking for specific content. Given that I do a large percentage of research on the web, visiting 50-100 sites a day, this is over the top for me. If you are doing any form of risky browsing, I recommend you use it selectively. Hopefully we will see a streamlined version as it is a really good idea.

I guess the question in my mind is how much security will we tolerate? Even security professionals are subject to the convenience factor.

–Adrian Lane