Monday, June 7, 2010

Flash Security Under the Microscope

On the heels of Apple's very public tussle with Adobe over Flash support on the iPad, Adobe announced a "critical vulnerability" in Flash on Friday.

Vulnerability announcements happen all the time. For better or worse, the nature of today's software industry is to build first and repair later. But its been months since Flash experienced a security issue of this scope. And the timing is not good for Adobe, as Steve Jobs specifically mentioned Flash security issues in his "Thoughts on Flash" manifesto in April. With the major media players deciding what graphics and animation standards to support, Flash is under the microscope.

I don't think security usually determines winners and losers in the mass market/desktop environment. But there are rare occasions when the cumulative perception of security vulnerabilities coupled with lingering privacy issues can form a tipping point in the fortunes of a technical standard or company. Many companies are immune to this phenomena due to a lack of alternatives (for all the user outrage, Facebook is not about to be upended by fledgling alternatives like Diaspora anytime soon). But with HTML5 and other open web based standards based offering competing functionality, a series of badly handled security vulnerabilities would not augur well for the future of Flash.

Incomprehensible warnings

Miscommunicating vulnerabilities like the one announced on Friday can fall into this straw-that-broke-the-camel's-back. At the time of writing (Saturday night June 5th) the Adobe announcement does not make clear that all users running current versions are vulnerable and that there is no available fix. Instead, Adobe published that anyone running Flash version or earlier is at risk. Since there is no version, that basically means that by default everyone is potentially vulnerable. Since most non-RainMan users do not have the version numbers of their installed programs memorized, this should have been more explicitly spelled out in plain English. A more technical explanation could have been included to parse out which installations exactly are at risk.

But even more troubling for the average user is the lack of a viable fix. Adobe has announced that this vulnerability is being exploited in the wild (again an incomprehensible term for most users…). There appears to be no available patch for the Flash vulnerability. And for the accompanying Reader and Acrobat vulnerabilities the solution is to remove the authplay.dll component that ships with the product. How many users know what a dll is?

Of course Adobe isn't alone in producing vulnerability announcements that are inactionable for most users. And this announcement is far from the worst. My unscientific thumb-in-the-wind estimate would give this a B or B- for clarity on a weighted curve with other major software vendors. But even more problematic and potentially more damaging to Adobe's long term perch within everyone's browser is the lack of user control over Flash privacy settings.

Flash's privacy exception

Flash has long existed in its own little fiefdom on the desktop, immune to many of the privacy controls applied to browser plugins. But that situation could be ripe for change. When even Facebook's CEO - with the closest thing the planet has to a universal social network - is literally sweating up a storm over users' privacy concerns, more easily replaced plugins like Flash cannot continue indefinitely to fly under the radar.

Until now Flash has somehow gotten a free pass when it comes to user privacy. In response to user demand, all the major browsers include a private browsing mode that does not record cookies and generally does not leave digital fingerprints on the user's computer (earning it its more technical name, porn mode). But Flash doesn't play by this game. Most users are very surprised to learn that Flash cookies persist on their machines long after the user has diligently cleared caches, cookies, and even reset their browsers. The only clue for the average user is the seemingly mysterious way that programs like Pandora still remember them long after they thought they scrubbed their browser clean. Flash may have a webpage where users can theoretically manage their cookies, but I would guess that only a minuscule portion of users are even aware of its existence.

Regardless of whether you think Flash on a website is cool or just annoying, it's hard to get the full web experience without Flash and that's why its installed on 99% of browsers. If Flash were to lose its ubiquity the transition to competing standards could snowball. With so little information available about the latest vulnerability, it is difficult to know whether it is the result of overzealous feature integration at the price of security. But as the ubiquitous incumbent in the web multimedia war of 2010, Flash will be judged - fairly or unfairly - to a higher standard than some of its emerging competitors.


  1. Actually, that settings manager web page doesn't really provide useful options. As I wrote in, trying to tweak Flash settings there will only result in web pages that refuse to work and annoying questions all the time. There is no "deny without asking" option just as there is no "accept only for the current session" option. So this page is a sad joke meant to frustrate users until they give up on privacy.

    The good news is: Flash will at least support private browsing now ( Now all I need is having Flash respect browser's cookie settings instead of requiring me to use their useless setting manager.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out Wladimir. Seems like there are still some kinks to be worked out with the private browsing support but it will be a big step forward.


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