A Conspiracy To Kill IE6

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

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The plan was very simple. We would put a small banner above the video player that would only show up for IE6 users. It would read “We will be phasing out support for your browser soon. Please upgrade to one of these more modern browsers.” Next to the text would be links to the current versions of the major browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, IE8 and eventually, Opera. The text was intentionally vague and the timeline left completely undefined. We hoped that it was threatening enough to motivate end users to upgrade without forcing us to commit to any actual deprecation plan. Users would have the ability to close out this warning if they wanted to ignore it or deal with it later. The code was designed to be as subtle as possible so that it would not catch the attention of anyone monitoring our checkins. Nobody except the web development team used IE6 with any real regularity, so we knew it was unlikely anyone would notice our banner appear in the staging environment. We even delayed having the text translated for international users so that a translator asking for additional context could not inadvertently surface what we were doing. Next, we just needed a way to slip the code into production without anyone catching on.

The little-told story of how a rogue team of YouTube engineers in 2009 helped hasten IE6‘s downfall by adding a deprecation warning to the top of the site’s homepage… without getting the (immediate) attention of the senior developers and management who’d have squashed their efforts.

How Edge Follows In IE’s Security Failings

I’ve generally been pretty defensive of Microsoft Edge, the default web browser in Windows 10. Unlike its much-mocked predecessor Internet Explorer, Edge is fast, clean, modern, and boasts good standards-compliance: all of the things that Internet Explorer infamously failed at! I was genuinely surprised to see Edge fail to gain a significant market share in its first few years: it seemed to me that everyday Windows users installed other browsers (mostly Chrome, which is causing its own problems) specifically because Internet Explorer was so terrible, and that once their default browser was replaced with something moderately-good this would no longer be the case. But that’s not what’s happened. Maybe it’s because Edge’s branding is too-remiscient of its terrible predecessor or maybe just because Windows users have grown culturally-used to the idea that the first thing they should do on a new PC is download a different browser, but whatever the reason, Edge is neglected. And for the most part, I’ve argued, that’s a shame.

Edge's minimalistic Certificate View.
I ranted at an Edge developer I met at a conference, once, about Edge’s weak TLS debugging tools that couldn’t identify an OCSP stapling issue that only affected Edge, but I thought that was the worse of its bugs… until now…

But I’ve changed my tune this week after doing some research that demonstrates that a long-standing security issue of Internet Explorer is alive and well in Edge. This particular issue, billed as a “feature” by Microsoft, is deliberately absent from virtually every other web browser.

About 5 years ago, Steve Gibson observed a special feature of EV (Extended Validation) SSL certificates used on HTTPS websites: that their extra-special “green bar”/company name feature only appears if the root CA (certificate authority) is among the browser’s default trust store for EV certificate signing. That’s a pretty-cool feature! It means that if you’re on a website where you’d expect to see a “green bar”, like Three Rings, PayPal, or HSBC, then if you don’t see the green bar one day it most-likely means that your connection is being intercepted in the kind of way I described earlier this year, and everything you see or send including passwords and credit card numbers could be at risk. This could be malicious software (or nonmalicious software: some antivirus software breaks EV certificates!) or it could be your friendly local network admin’s middlebox (you trust your IT team, right?), but either way: at least you have a chance of noticing, right?

Firefox address bars showing EV certificates of Three Rings CIC (GB), PayPal, Inc. (US), and HSBC Holdings plc (GB)
Firefox, like most browsers, shows the company name in the address bar when valid EV certificates are presented, and hides it when the validity of that certificate is put into question by e.g. network sniffing tools set up by your IT department.

Browsers requiring that the EV certificate be signed by a one of a trusted list of CAs and not allowing that list to be manipulated (short of recompiling the browser from scratch) is a great feature that – were it properly publicised and supported by good user interface design, which it isn’t – would go a long way to protecting web users from unwanted surveillance by network administrators working for their employers, Internet service providers, and governments. Great! Except Internet Explorer went and fucked it up. As Gibson reported, not only does Internet Explorer ignore the rule of not allowing administrators to override the contents of the trusted list but Microsoft even provides a tool to help them do it!

Address bars from major browsers connecting to a spoofed site, with EV certificate "green bars" showing only in Internet Explorer and Edge.
From top to bottom: Internet Explorer 11, Edge 17, Firefox 61, Chrome 68. Only Internet Explorer and Edge show the (illegitimate) certificate for “Barclays PLC”. Sorry, Barclays; I had to spoof somebody.

I decided to replicate Gibson’s experiment to confirm his results with today’s browsers: I was also interested to see whether Edge had resolved this problem in Internet Explorer. My full code and configuration can be found here. As is doubtless clear from the title of this post and the screenshot above, Edge failed the test: it exhibits exactly the same troubling behaviour as Internet Explorer.

Thanks, Microsoft.

Safari doesn't fall for it, either.
I also tried Safari (both on MacOS, above, and iOS, below) and it behaved as the other non-Microsoft browsers do (i.e. arguably more-correctly than IE or Edge).

I shan’t for a moment pretend that our current certification model isn’t without it’s problems – it’s deeply flawed; more on that in a future post – but that doesn’t give anybody an excuse to get away with making it worse. When it became apparent that Internet Explorer was affected by the “feature” described above, we all collectively rolled our eyes because we didn’t expect better of everybody’s least-favourite web browser. But for Edge to inherit this deliberate-fault, despite every other browser (even those that share its certificate store) going in the opposite direction, is just insulting.

Craziest Internet Explorer Bug Ever?

As web developers, we’re used to working around the bugs in Microsoft Internet Explorer. The older versions are worst, and I’m certainly glad to not have to write code that works in Internet Explorer 6 (or, increasingly, Internet Explorer 7) any more: even Microsoft are glad to see Internet Explorer 6 dying out, but even IE8 is pretty ropey too. And despite what Microsoft claim, I’m afraid IE9 isn’t really a “modern” browser either (although it is a huge step forwards over its predecessors).

But imagine my surprise when I this week found what I suspect might be a previously undiscovered bug in Internet Explorer 8 and below. Surely they’ve all been found (and some of them even fixed), but now? But no. It takes a very specific set of circumstances for the bug to manifest itself, but it’s not completely unbelievable – I ran into it by accident while refactoring parts of Three Rings.

A completely useless Internet Explorer error message.
A completely useless Internet Explorer error message. Thanks, IE.

Here’s the crux of it: if you’re –

  • Using Internet Explorer 8 or lower, and
  • You’re on a HTTPS (secure) website, and
  • You’re downloding one of a specific set of file types: Bitmap files, for example, are a problem, but JPEG files aren’t (Content-Type: image/bmp), and
  • The web server indicates that the file you’re downloading should be treated as something to be “saved”, rather than something to be viewed in your browser (Content-Disposition: attachment), and
  • The web server passes a particular header to ask that Internet Explorer does not cache a copy of the file (Cache-Control: no-cache),

Then you’ll see a dialog box like the one shown above. Switching any of the prerequistes in that list out makes the problem go away: even switching the header from a strict “no-cache” to a more-permissive “private” makes all the difference.

I’ve set up a test environment where you can see this for yourself: HTTP version; HTTPS version. The source code of my experiment (PHP) is also available. Of course, if you try it in a functional, normal web browser, it’ll all work fine. But if you’ve got access to a copy of Internet Explorer 8 on some old Windows XP box somewhere (IE8 is the last version of the browser made available for XP), then try it in that and see for yourself what a strange error you get.

Personal Effects

Since my dad’s funeral, a little over a month ago, I’ve been responsible – as executor of his will – for leading the efforts to deal with the distribution of his estate. By necessity of the complexity of the case, we’ve had to draft some friendly lawyers, but there’s still been an awful lot to be taken care of by my sisters, my mother, my dad’s partner, and I, among others. Some bits have been easier than others.

Cheque made out to "Executor of Mr P Huntley"
TV Licensing, for example, have been particularly useless, as evidenced by this cheque.

Standard Life‘s pensions department, for example, made my dealings with them very easy: they explained exactly what they needed from me, exactly what they’d do with it, and how quickly they could act upon it. TV Licensing, on the other hand, seem to be working against me rather than for me, issuing me a cheque made out as it is to “Executor of MR P HUNTLEY”, which was subsequently rejected by my bank on account of being in the name of nobody at all. I suppose I could easily change my name in order to accept that cheque, but that seems like the wrong solution. Plus I’ve always felt like more of a “Dan” than an “Executor”.

A copy of Internet Explorer 4 At A Glance
For some reason, my dad kept his copy of the (rather thick) book “Internet Explorer 4 At A Glance”; a book whose necessity I would have questioned even back in 2001, when it was published.

I’ve begun packing up the contents of my dad’s house, too, so that they can be meaningfully distributed to whoever ought to have them. This leads to an inevitable clash, of course, between the lawyers and the local council. The former want us to remove as little as possible before they can appraise the value of the contents, which is relevant to the assessment of inheritance tax. The latter demand that the house be left unfurnished so that it does not become liable for council tax. In order to walk the fine line between the two I’ve been packaging things up based on their types: his vast library of transport books in these boxes, etc. And despite great efforts (such as the work it took to disassemble the rusty old trampoline in the back garden), it still feels like there’s a long, long, long way to go.