Enterprise Software

Spyware takes aim at Mozilla browsers

As the Firefox browser grows in popularity, some security experts believe it will attract its own type of spyware.

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By Ingrid Marson
Special to CNET News.com

Security experts are advising that spyware that targets browsers from the Mozilla Foundation has been spotted—a threat that could worsen as its Firefox browser takes market share from Microsoft.

Stu Sjouwerman, the founder of Sunbelt Software, said on Tuesday that the anti-spyware company has discovered what it believes is the first spyware to take aim at surfers using Mozilla browsers.

Richard Stiennon, vice president of threat research at Webroot Software, which also develops anti-spyware tools, said that the malicious software does not target Firefox specifically.

"According to my research team, this site does not target Firefox, but it does target Mozilla," Stiennon said. "(It's) only a matter of time now until a Firefox spy is discovered."

Although the spyware is only installed if users agree to download a certain file, many users are likely to click through, as the download's dialogue box gives no indication of the file's malicious payload, Sjouwerman said.

"It's done in a way that people might not recognize as a normal install, and will work in Firefox," Sjouwerman said. "It's not a full-fledged spyware attack yet, but it definitely shows where it's going."

Experts believe that Mozilla-based browsers such as Firefox have become a greater target for spyware as their market share has rapidly increased over the last six months—from 2.4 percent in May to 7.4 percent in November, according to Web traffic measurement company OneStat.com. Firefox has said that it is aiming for 10 percent of Web surfers by the end of 2005.

Writers of viruses and spyware for browsers have typically concentrated on Internet Explorer, because of its near-total market dominance. But that could be changing now that Firefox is making gains at the expense of Microsoft's browser.

Sjouwerman said that "stealth spyware" targeted at Firefox is "bound to happen" as hackers are currently working hard trying to find security holes in the open-source browser. "There's a small army of rogue programmers that are tearing Firefox apart," he said.

But Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at security company Sophos, said he is not sure what type of spyware will target Firefox.

"It's hard to predict precisely what form spyware for Firefox may take, as it will depend in part on what security flaws may be found in the Firefox code in the future, and how quickly the community responds to patch those vulnerabilities," Cluley said.

David McGuinness, a Mozilla contributor, said Firefox protects PC users by displaying a yellow information bar if a site that is not Update.mozilla.org tries to automatically install code. But he warned that it will be more difficult to protect systems against a stealth install.

"It all boils down to user education. People can install applications with variable amounts of effort from all browsers. It's the stealth attacks that are the problem, where people get infected without running anything themselves," McGuinness said.

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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