Microsoft Calls Out Google for Using Known Un-patched IE Security Hole

February 20, 2012

Today, Microsoft went on the offensive and called Google out for abusing a well known security hole in Internet Explorer that lets websites set 3rd party cookies, despite Internet Explorer being set to reject 3rd party cookies by default.

Rather than take the opportunity to fix the bug that has been publicly known for well over 2 years, affects multiple versions of Internet Explorer, has been promoted as an IE fix on Microsoft’s own support website, and has been abused by a number of large websites, including Google and Facebook, Microsoft instead used it to attack Google and suggests blacklisting Google Domains.

The timing of Microsoft’s release of this well known issue nicely ties into an article describing how Google was bypassing a Safari privacy setting, which the MSDN blog links to and was released recently.

Read the MSDN Statement: blogs.msdn.com/b/ie/archive/2012/02/20/google-bypassing-user-privacy-settings.aspx

Abusing a 2+ Year Old IE Bug

The protocol in question is P3P, the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project, which is only really supported in any meaningful way by Internet Explorer. It is basically intended to allow websites to provide a privacy policy with their cookies, with the idea being that the privacy policy states how the user’s information will be used and then, depending on the browsers P3P policy, the cookie would be allowed or denied.

In Internet Explorer, even though 3rd party cookies are set to be disabled, you can bypass this by sending an invalid cookie header. As a result, you can easily bypass Internet Explorers default cookie policy via P3P.

In addition, W3C suspended further work on P3P, with the 2006 Privacy Preferences 1.1 appearing to be the last time they have worked on what is a somewhat complicated protocol.

The problems with Internet Explorer’s P3P implementation are well known and were reported by the New York Times in September 2010. in 2010, they stated that a “Large numbers of Web sites, including giants like Facebook, appear to be using a loophole that circumvents I.E.’s ability to block cookies.”

You can read the paper the New York Times Article was based on here: The Misrepresentation of Website Privacy Policies through the Misuse of P3P.

In the above research paper, published in 2010, they state “We discovered that Microsoft’s support website recommends the use of invalid [P3P Cookies] for problems in IE.” They go on to state that the code on Microsoft’s support website was found in about 25% of all invalid cookies they tested.

In this case, Google was taking advantage of, exploiting(?,) this bug to set a third-party cookie.

Fix the Underlying Problem or Start a Campaign Against Your Competitors Services?

Now, anyone one who does any work online should know that you can’t trust people to do the right thing. In a perfect world, we would not need anti-virus software, locks on our houses, or to provide driver’s licenses when we withdraw money from our bank accounts.

However, we don’t live in a perfect world and if something can be abused, it will be.

So, the logical solution would be to fix the gaping hole in Internet Explorer that is opened up by P3P, as it is openly being abused by multiple websites and has been for some time.

I think even if you completely ignore the 2010 security paper, it is safe to say that if Google is Abusing it and it is, especially now, a very well known bug, it is safe to say that A LOT of much more shady websites/businesses are probably abusing it too.

However, Microsoft decided to go another route, suggesting that users black list 12 Google Domains from setting these cookies.

For the purpose of this post, we will disregard the fact that blacklisting is an oft ill-advised solution that can be cumbersome, ineffective, and easily bypassed.

However, this solution conveniently targets their competitor’s services, while not making an effort to address other websites or the underlying problem. So, rather than preventing websites from being able to abuse this now even more well known bug, they are suggesting IE users block the their search, advertisement, phone, operating system, and browser competitor’s web services.

Ultimately, while I don’t like to be tracked period, I am much less worried about the 12 Google domains they block than shady ad-networks that make money selling malware adverts, which could potentially be abusing this bug. These sorts of companies will not be stopped by Microsoft’s “fix.”

Do We Need to Pull Out the Pitchforks for Google?

Obviously, assuming Microsoft’s report is accurate, which given independent research and Google’s own P3P policy, it is probably safe to say they are, Google is abusing a bug!

This is not acceptable and is dishonest. They are, arguably, taking advantage of an exploit in a browser to serve their cookies.

We can, and should, hold Google and other companies to a higher standard, especially when they are in the business of collecting personal information.

Even if their intentions are, as they state in their P3P privacy policy, to get around a limitation in Internet Explorer, at the end of the day, they are taking advantage of a bug and this is not good business. At the very least this is a dishonest move by Google, at worse a malicious attempt to circumvent browser security settings.

So, Google is certainly not without blame.

Broken By Design

It would be interesting to see how many Microsoft Services rely on P3P to poke holes in Internet Explorer’s cookie policy, because that is the only reason I can see for keeping it in place, especially after work on it was suspended by W3C, although Microsoft’s history of honoring web standards is another discussion.

The ideas behind P3P are logical and even could be a nice addition to the way we browse the web. You visit a web-site, it says it uses its cookies for x, y, z and you can block or accept the cookie, without having to read through 10 pages of legalese.

However, while a neat idea, this relies too much on trust in a world that is filled with people that are more than willing to abuse it.

If setting a P3P header stating that the website does not intend to track is all it takes to bypass user-cookie settings, a dishonest ad-network or website is not going to think twice about abusing it. With sites like Google, or Facebook, both of which have abused this bug in the past, there is a good chance for shaming them into doing the right thing. However, there are a lot more sites out there that do not care about reputation management.

Tracking is Big Business: Pot Meet Kettle

While exploiting a bug is not acceptable, all companies go out of their way to track users and Microsoft is no exception. There is big money in tracking and companies use whatever means they can to get user data.

For example, do you block scripts and disable third-party cookies?

Microsoft is still tracking you via Omniture, using a tracking image within a noscript block.

Their premise is that Google is deliberately bypassing a security policy, yet they go out of their way to poke a hole in a user’s security policy too, because this type of data is valuable to them. All large websites, like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google go out of their way to collect user data.

This is also not, as evidenced above, something that Microsoft just figured out or suddenly noticed. This is a well known bug and in the past, Microsoft suggested exploiting it on their own support website to get around IE bugs.

It is possible that they only now found out Google was doing it, which is very unlikely given Google’s public P3P privacy policy, however I think it is more likely they thought now would be a good time to capitalize off the Safari privacy issues Google has been having.

How to Fix

Microsoft provided a blacklist to use that will disable third party cookies on certain Google Domains, but this is short sited and aside from appearing to be a nice way to hurt one of their main competitors in search/advertisement/ect, I would be more worried about the unknown websites and much less reputable ad-networks that can and will abuse this bug.

If they did not know about it before, they do now and it is a whole lot harder, if not impossible, to create a blacklist for all the shady websites that could abuse this.

Until they patch their browser and re-evaluate the largely unsuccessful p3p protocol, you can disable third-party cookies completely via Internet Explorer settings. I have not tested this, but apparently if you actually disable them, instead of relying on the default cookie policy, these sorts of cookies would get blocked.

Or, install a better browser, like Firefox…

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