Which Browser is The Most Secure?

Category: Browsers

Do you trust your web browser to warn you before you stumble into a malicious Web site? A recent study of six major browsers indicates that you probably shouldn't. Only one browser succeeded at blocking over 90 percent of malicious links. Three runners-up tied at a measly 13 percent! The winner might surprise you, read on...

Is Internet Explorer 9 The Most Secure?

First, here's a little background on how a browser decides whether to warn you against proceeding to a website. The browser checks each URL (web address) you click on against an online database of reported malicious sites. If a URL is not in the database, the browser just lets you go there. If the URL is in the database, a warning window pops up and you get to choose whether to proceed to the site or not.

Three major browsers - Firefox, Safari, and Chrome - use Google's Safe Browsing database of malicious links. Opera uses technology provided by antivirus developer AVG. Microsoft has its own database called SmartScreen URL Filter. Apparently, Microsoft's database is vastly superior to the others.

NSS Labs, an independent security testing facility, turned all six browsers loose against a set of 650 malicious URLs. The results are rather alarming for anyone who doesn't use a recent version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer:
Malicious URL Detection

  • Internet Explorer 9 blocked 92 percent of the malicious links. (IE8 scored at 90 percent.)
  • Only 13 percent of malicious links were blocked by Firefox, Chrome, and Safari.
  • Opera scored a pathetic 5 percent.

But wait, it gets even better. (Or worse, depending on your preferred browser.) Internet Explorer 9 has a new feature, Application Reputation, which boosted its blocking rate to an astonishing 100 per cent in NSS Labs' test. Application Reputation focuses on downloadable files rather than Web pages. It examines a file's "reputation" in the SmartScreen database: how many times it has been downloaded; is it digitally signed; is the publisher known and reputable; have there been any reports of malware in the file. If a file is known and trusted, the download proceeds without interference from SmartScreen. If it is known malware, you are warned of that fact and given a chance to cancel the download. If it is unknown, you receive a cautionary message before the download is allowed to proceed.

The methodology used by NSS Labs has been criticized. The sample size and test run were too limited, say critics. You can read the entire NSS Labs report (22 pages, PDF) and decide for yourself. It should be noted that NSS Labs did not receive funding from any of the browser developers.

So, is IE 9 the most secure browser? That would be too broad a statement. There are many other ways a browser can let malware enter your computer, or allow hackers to take over control of your system. Some criticize Microsoft for tightly integrating the browser into the operating system, which can allow a browser security hole to penetrate deeper than it would otherwise. But as far as the tested methods are concerned, both IE8 and IE 9 seem to protect you from malicious links and downloads better than any other browser, by a long shot.

Your thoughts are welcome on this topic! Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Which Browser is The Most Secure?"

(See all 56 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

06 Aug 2011

I'll lay odds that this test did not take into account the add-on programs for firefox that work well for protection against such threats. No doubt it was a stock version without any add on protections.

Posted by:

06 Aug 2011

I do use IE9 at times. However, I must admit it is to slow. Yes, I have a few extensions. I use these extensions. But it just takes too much time to load.

Posted by:

06 Aug 2011

didn't Winston Churchill say there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Impressive reading and I use the top 3, but i've got the impression that these statistics are slightly skewed given that FF, chrome and safari are using the google method (a search site that gets paid for advertising the sites, supplying a list of good and bad sites :)) while all of these browsers predominantly run on an operating system that has as it's tied in browser the product of the company that owns the operating system and is therefore getting the information on every site that that operating system is accessing through all the browsers used.

Posted by:

06 Aug 2011

I've recently had to clean up far too many Windows-based machines whose owners used IE exclusively, then got scareware on their machines because IE apparently still allows drive-by downloads/installs under certain conditions.

This is alarming, and the fact that all but one of the scareware programs only allowed IE (of the browsers on the clients' machines) to run (everything else was disallowed!) seems significant.

Microsoft's efforts to increase security are laudable, but my experiences seem to contradict the conclusions of this article.

Posted by:

08 Aug 2011

I've been on the Internet extensively with multiple computers for over 15 years. During that time I have gotten one virus, which came in through an ActiveX script and Internet Explorer. I use Firefox and have, exclusively since it was Phoenix 0.2, and have had no issues with malware.

I also keep a good antivirus program updated and running, and avoid those classes of sites known to be playgrounds for malware (p**n sites and 'warez' sites, primarily). As I have always said, the best browser is the one with the best interface between computer and chair.

Posted by:

08 Aug 2011

For years I worked in an industry where results of any test could be shaped to say whatever we wanted them to so we could get the best funding outcome.

If anyone believes IEx.x is the best then fill their boots and enjoy. I deal with malware every day and have observed the incidence of people who get infected while using IE of any flavour are considerably higher than all the other browsers combined by 3 to one. IE is claimed to currently have around 42% of the market share so it appears that you are much easier target if you use IE, whether it is harder to visit malicious sites or not. Market share may be actually hard to correcly determine since browsers (especially mobile versions) can be set to report different user agents and hence seriously skew the results. I seriously doubt that IE would report to be another browser though.

Of course all this might lend some credence to the theory that IE users are less savvy about what they are doing on their computers and hence more likely to get infected anyway. After all the path of least resistance when starting with a new computer is to use it as it comes out of the box.

It is a pity that people who seek to report how great the new MS product is, (whether paid or not) fail to give decent account of all the facts. I am not in a position to dispute any of the claims, however it did cause a severe peaking of my B$ detector.

Posted by:

08 Aug 2011

Fine, IE9 is the safest browser, on its own. But in combination with other software any browser can be as safe as this.

As far as Firefox goes, they have multiple add-ons that can make it very secure, and in combination with Internet Security software, there is still no reason to abandon your favourite browser.

For the lazy and careless type though, stick to IE.

Posted by:

Ed Stewart
10 Aug 2011

I have been running Firefox and now Chrome since 2002 on Debian Linux without a single intrustion of any kind. It is nice not to need all the junk needed to keep a windows computer alive. I do computer repair and use linux based bootable antivirus removable cd's to completely clean Windows boxes..

Posted by:

10 Aug 2011

I recently went up to Windows 7 and IE9 of course. I already used all the others and have various "security" add on's and plug ins for them. But I began using IE9 more and more. It's rather surprising to see the SECUNIA psi telling me that an IE Browser is "SAFE" for browsing...ha. I DO like it, not quite enough as Chrome, FF, but I don't automatically go for those others as much as I used to. I like it better than IE8 and agree with the study findings. :0)

Posted by:

10 Aug 2011

SOMEONE Please Tell "SONGMASTER" up there about Mvps dot org's custom host file that blocks advertisers and malicious links so he doesn't have to see them on web pages, messengers or the side of email in boxes. Much better than Ad block plus on other Browsers. When Used with "Hostsman" you can block sites on the fly. I got it to work with IE9 and Win7 with no problem. Even use the Mvps hosts file copy and pasted into my Linux side. You don't have to look at AD's, pic a .gif or solid color of your choice and look at THAT instead. :0)

Posted by:

10 Aug 2011

It's interesting to read all of this. Everyone lauds Firefox. But you have to start adding things to FF. Once you've done that you've got a slow pig of a browser. I don't think any browser is going to be all things to all people, regardless. And those downright deceptive, "lying" ads by Norton are something else.

Posted by:

10 Aug 2011

Firefox Aficionados: Please share with us newbies the add-ons you use to make Firefox more secure. We love Firefox!

Posted by:

11 Aug 2011

I like Opera better than the others because it blocks more pop-ups than the others, but some pages do not display properly so I use FF almost exclusively. Surfing and downloading habits have a larger bearing on unwanted crap getting on your machine. With that said, you can do everything you're suppose to and still get infected if any of your email correspondents play around on the dark side of the web. P2P sharing is insane, and quite honestly, if you're intent is to get something for free that you should be paying for, you put yourself at risk and also everyone that you swap emails with.

Posted by:

12 Aug 2011

AVG (free) has a link scanner that shows up in my Google searches when I use FireFox.

Posted by:

16 Aug 2011

I study web development, and in doing so we have to ensure the pages we build display properly in ALL possuble browsers, we do limit it to the top 5 or 6 though (IExx being the most troublesome). They are always under development to.

As far as security is concerned, the problem is, is that while there are devious, nasty, a-hs out there, there will always be security issues/problems, however, it is the user/operator who provides the most - or least - security. If you have decent anti virus, anti malware package installed and you have CS, and use it, you should be fairly safe - no matter what browser you use.

My preference(s)? Firefox 5, Chrome, Opera, Safari, then.... hmm IE I guess. I do not like the way MS think they are god and "think" do dont have to play by the rules.

Posted by:

23 Aug 2011

The safest browser is one that is not running on windoze. If the OS is not safe then you can have the safest browser and it will not do you any good. The results of this browser study sound like MS hype to get people to stay with or return to ie.

Posted by:

Johnny Raven
16 Sep 2011

A rather interesting test! I started with "NCSA Mosaic" in 1993, then "Mosaic Netscape" in 1994, then "Netscape" in all its versions through Netscape 4.8 in 2002, at which time it was sold to AOL and became a monster that officially died in 2008 (and more likely 2004).

Meanwhile, Internet Explorer (which got a late start) has *always* ignored many of the W3C Internet Standards, although they gradually honored more W3C Standard after IE6, and IE8 (for the first time) actually looks like a good robust browser ... it's about time!

Firefox, Opera, Safari, and Google Chrome (among others) all have their fans, and are disliked by others ... most people choose a browser where they like it's features, not because it's "safest" in some test that may NOT reflect how a person will actually use a browser.

I use at least three browsers every day, all at the same time, all for specific reasons, and I have eight browsers on my computer ... as has been said by many others here, safety is mostly in your intelligent use of the internet, not how smart your browser may be ... my (a) Firewall, my (b) Anti-Virus, my (c) Anti-Spyware, and my other (d) Anti-Malware software help protect my computer, not my browsers.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2011

Hello again Bob. I have been a big fan of Chrome for it's speed and simplicity. It beats all the other browsers hands down it those areas. As for being secure, I'm not so sure that any browser will protect you if your surfing web content that is likely to be infested with bugs, (p**n comes to mind). Download movies, music and software from pirate sites will invariably infect your system eventually, no matter which browser you use. I agree with previous comments that most people use browsers for their features, not their security. I have never liked Internet Explorer, it's very slow compared to Chrome. I only use it when I run into an application that will not work on Chrome. But I'll try it and see...

Posted by:

Eric K
28 Jan 2012

Hello everyone,

I have always had multiple browsers installed on all my computers. I went through the Firefox stage. Netscape navigator, Sea Monkey, Safari,Opera,Maxthon, the list goes on forever actually. I always come back to Internet Explorer. The only time I was really not satisfied with IE was the curse of IE6. Well, IE7 was pretty slow. I will say that with IE8, and IE9 my internet browsing has been great. (I'm even using IE10 in the Windows 8 developers preview using the Metro interface and am very impressed. I have to agree that there is not one browser that will protect you if you decide to go off into the world of p**n, or many p2p sites.

Posted by:

John Smith
19 Jun 2013

I use Firefox with "No Script" add on. I despise videos that play or scripts that run automatically without permission.

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