Why the U.S. Government Is Extra Worried About the Huge Internet Explorer Bug

Old computers.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
April 28, 2014, 8:34 a.m.

Over the week­end, Mi­crosoft an­nounced a huge se­cur­ity flaw in its In­ter­net Ex­plorer Web browser (in ver­sions IE6 through IE11). “An at­tack­er who suc­cess­fully ex­ploited this vul­ner­ab­il­ity could gain the same user rights as the cur­rent user,” Mi­crosoft wrote in its ad­vis­ory.

In re­sponse, the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment is­sued its own memo, ad­vising com­puter users with­in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to “con­sider em­ploy­ing an al­tern­at­ive Web browser,” see­ing that the vul­ner­ab­il­ity “could lead to the com­plete com­prom­ise of an af­fected sys­tem,” which is not de­sir­able.

A vul­ner­ab­il­ity like this is es­pe­cially bad for the U.S. gov­ern­ment, which tends to cling to older tech­no­logy. That’s not to say that In­ter­net Ex­plorer is an “old” tech­no­logy; it’s up­dated reg­u­larly. But it is los­ing mar­ket share, as Na­tion­al Journal‘s Stephanie Stamm demon­strated in the graph­ic pos­ted be­low. The browser also causes head­aches for de­velopers, be­cause it renders Web pages dif­fer­ently than oth­er browsers do. It also has a his­tory of se­cur­ity glitches. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, it’s thought to be the Hot­mail of Web browsers.

On Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s web­site, for in­stance, vis­it­ors on gov­ern­ment com­puters are more than twice as likely to be us­ing In­ter­net Ex­plorer as our read­er­ship over­all. Plus, 10 per­cent of gov­ern­ment com­puters still use the dec­ade-old Win­dows XP, and be­cause that op­er­at­ing sys­tem has been dis­con­tin­ued, Mi­crosoft will not re­lease a patch to fix In­ter­net Ex­plorer on those com­puters.

It’s a dan­ger­ous time to be an In­ter­net user, es­pe­cially in the wake of the Heart­bleed bug. But it’s even ris­ki­er to be an In­ter­net user on a dis­con­tin­ued ma­chine.

(Stephanie Stamm)

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