Microsoft has unveiled several changes in the way its upcoming Internet Explorer 7 browser will classify websites for security, to reduce the chances of users falling victim to malicious code.
The current version IE 6 browser has four classifications for websites - internet, local intranet, trusted and restricted – which allow users to apply different security rules for how the browser interacts with websites.
The browser uses the settings to determine, for instance, if it will run Active X controls without first alerting the user.
Microsoft has been working on improvements to prevent the browser from running malicious code in less restrictive security zones.
The company has decided that the local intranet zone is not really relevant for home users. Instead, a change has been made to IE 7 so when a PC is not on a managed corporate network, IE will treat apparent intranet sites as if they were on the internet.
This change effectively removes the attack surface of the intranet zone for home PC users, said Microsoft.
But if a machine is running on a domain IE 7 will automatically detect the intranet sites and revert to the intranet zone settings. Network administrators will be able to set group policies to ensure the browser runs as planned.
With Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows Vista operating system, the internet zone will run in “protected mode” to help protect against attacks that IE has been victim to in the past.
Another feature called ActiveX Opt-In will reduce potential damage from malicious Active X controls in the internet zone, said the company.
These changes will be illustrated in a new security level setting for the internet zone called “medium high”.
The “Trusted” zone will also have a default security setting of “medium”, the same as the internet zone in IE 6. Users will be able to lower this setting.
Microsoft is planning to distribute a beta of its more secure Internet Explorer 7 browser within four months.
The beta will be available to users of the company’s Windows XP operating system, ahead of the launch of its next generation Windows system Vista.
The plan is to launch the beta before the end of March 2006 to allow users to test the extra security and functionality that will come with IE 7.
As well as new anti-phishing and anti-spyware features, the browser is expected to offer users tabbed browsing, in the same way its main rival Firefox does.
Web analytics companies estimate the open-source Firefox browser from the Mozilla Foundation now has approaching 9% of the browser market, since being launched a year ago.
Internet Explorer 6 and earlier versions takes up around 85% of the market. IE 7 is designed to help stall Firefox’s continued growth, amid concerns among some users that Internet Explorer is less secure.