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Analysis: which browser battles malware best?

Firefox 3, Opera 9.5 and IE 8 vs malware

A number of browsers that have recently been released including Firefox 3 and Opera 9.5, as well as the upcoming IE 8, benefit from blocking features to protect your PC from malware. We find out just what they offer.

Opera girds itself

Opera 9.5 works in a similar fashion, but with some key differences. It adds malware-site blacklists from Haute Secure to the phishing blacklists from Netcraft and Phishtank that the previous version used. Haute's list includes sites on Google's list, those the company discovers, and sites that Haute's users have submitted.

According to Christer Strand, an engineer at Opera who worked on the new feature, when you first visit a domain, the browser pulls down a sublist of any blacklisted pages or links within that domain from the latest online-stored lists. It then checks pages you visit against that small downloaded list. Opera doesn't save anything about who is visiting what domains, Strand says.

Although you can find these features in the latest Opera and Firefox now, you'll have to wait for Internet Explorer 8's similar feature. Austin Wilson, director of Windows client product management, says that IE 8's beta 2, due out in August, will employ a feature dubbed SmartScreen to block malware sites.

Wilson says Microsoft will use lists of such sites from different company partners, as it does now for the browser's antiphishing protection, but he isn't yet saying who those partners will be.

Instead of downloading all or part of the blacklist to your PC, IE 8 will check every page you visit against the online malware blacklist, Wilson says. Unlike IE 7's phishing protection, which checks for blacklist matches and also attempts to identify phishing sites at the time you visit based on a page's characteristics (such as whether it sends log-ins off to another domain), SmartScreen will only compare against a blacklist for malware sites.

Wondering about Apple's Safari? The current browser doesn't block any malicious sites, phishing or malware, and the company is tight-lipped about whether it plans to add such features.

No silver bullet

While these new features will help combat rampant site infections, they won't single-handedly stomp out web-based malware any more than antiphishing measures do for that type of threat. For one thing, blacklists are inherently reactive: a site must first be identified and added to a list before it will be blocked. Even the fastest such process can leave a window of opportunity for criminals to nail victims before the blacklists catch up, just as with virus signatures. And of course, crooks still have other methods, such as email and IM, to ply their nefarious trade.

"In most cases viruses spread so rapidly, and through so many methods, it's not sufficient to only employ browser protection," says Opera's Strand.

His advice for surfers? "You really need an antivirus [program] no matter what browser you're using."

  1. Web browsers that help block malware
  2. Opera girds itself

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