Internet Explorer use poses security risk

Penn State U. urges students and staff to find alternatives; many not concerned by threat

· January 19, 2005, 5:00 am

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The world's largest software company, has been trying to fix security issues with its Internet Explorer Web browser for the past three years.

Although Microsoft has issued three patches just this month -- ranging on their scale from "important" to "critical" -- many Penn students remain unconcerned.

Only in the last few months has the company really begun to step up its release of free, downloadable patches -- codes that can be used to protect against bugs, viruses and security flaws in the program itself.

Last Tuesday, the software giant issued a critical patch to fix a vulnerability surrounding the Windows Media Player ActiveX control --technology that is used to share information among different applications. The patch defends against an attacker trying to take control of an affected system, thus preventing such a person from executing malicious programs such as spyware -- unwanted programs that track user information -- on the victim's computer.

In response to the proliferation of spyware, Microsoft recently started offering a program called Microsoft Windows AntiSpyware, which is a download that blocks pop-ups and prevents hackers from recording the user's activities.

But problems have grown so bad that officials at Penn State University recently recommended that all 80,000 students and staff switch to a different browser.

But IE remains the browser of choice for many on campus.

"I feel pretty secure using Internet Explorer, so I still use it," Wharton freshman Krishna Kantheti said.

However, he added that many of his friends have switched over to Netscape to reduce the chances of their computer being infected by a virus.

The accumulation of spyware is not the only risk that Internet Explorer users face. They are also vulnerable to more serious threats such as Trojan horses, or other malicious programs that can infect a person's computer if they happen to stumble upon the wrong Web site.

Given all these problems, the most important thing people can do to protect their computers is to use "common sense," advised ITA manager and Engineering junior Andy Chen.

For many, this advice may translate into switching browsers altogether.

The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team -- a government sponsored organization that endeavors to protect the nation's Internet infrastructure -- has recommended that Windows users search for an alternative to Internet Explorer.

The most popular alternative these days is Mozilla's Firefox.

"Mozilla is just as easy to use as Internet Explorer," Wharton senior Craig Rubin said.

Netscape and Opera are two other options for those looking to switch browsers.

"Regardless of what Internet browser you use, you should always update your Windows," said Chen, who now uses Mozilla instead of Internet Explorer.

Penn has yet to issue a similar statement. However, according to University Information Security Officer David Millar, the University's information technology community will begin its annual evaluation of Web browsers next month in hopes of reaching a more conclusive decision on Internet Explorer by May.

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