Don't throw out ActiveX (or Java)

Barely a week goes by without one or more ActiveX controls from various vendors being declared unsafe

For years, many security consultants and well-meaning guidelines have recommended completely disabling ActiveX in Internet browsers (mainly Internet Explorer) to prevent a particular type of Web client-side attack. Running a browser without ActiveX enabled can be a frustrating experience for end-users, as many popular and legitimate Web sites use ActiveX to enhance the user's overall experience.

Barely a week goes by without one or more ActiveX controls from various vendors being declared unsafe, so I can understand the caution. You should always disable unneeded and unauthorized software, but running a browser without ActiveX enabled when other more reasonable alternatives exist is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

(Disclosure: Although I work full time for Microsoft, everything I say here could equally apply to Sun's Java.)

Yes, hundreds of ActiveX controls have been found, over the last decade, to contain buffer overflows or to allow malicious behavior. But with a few exceptions, the problem isn't with the ActiveX platform itself, but with insecure program code passed along using ActiveX mechanisms. Sometimes the ActiveX controls are downloaded by users, but problematic controls are just as likely to be preinstalled by hardware and software vendors.

ActiveX is a platform, not a language. No one codes in the ActiveX language. ActiveX is a popular way for a software vendor to transport its program (normally in .CAB, .DLL, or .OCX file formats) from a Web site, then install and launch it in a user's browser session in an almost seamless manner.

There are many other methods to download and install Internet-based code, but ActiveX is fairly easy to use, integrates well with multiple Internet browsers, and contains many native security mechanisms. For one, vendors can sign their ActiveX controls with a publicly trusted digital certificate to confirm to the end-user that the program they are receiving is indeed from the purported vendor. There have been a few malicious uses of digital certificates over the last decade, but the inappropriately used certificates are quickly revoked when discovered. Overall, the publisher identity system works pretty well in identifying the originating software publisher, when users pay attention to it.

But unfortunately, a digital signature doesn't guarantee that the control won't do something unauthorized to the user's system or that it doesn't contain an exploitable vulnerability. No programming language or Internet transportation method can do that. ActiveX gives vendors one way to transport their program from source to destination, but it doesn't absolve the vendor of using SDL (secure design lifecycle) programming.

Now, it is completely valid to ask if ActiveX's ability to seamlessly download and integrate programs within the context of a browser is a safe thing in today's scary Internet world. But if you're going to identify an Internet programming mechanism involved with more Internet crime than another other mechanisms, you would single out JavaScript. JavaScript is involved in nearly 100 per cent of browser-related, client-side attacks, including the ones involving ActiveX, and you don't hear popular calls to get rid of JavaScript.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Roger A. Grimes

InfoWorld
Show Comments

Cool Tech

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?