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How This Team Built Their Own Secure Version Of Google Chrome

Unsatisfied with what browser makers had to offer, WhiteHat Security decided to investigate the Chromium open source browser project.

How This Team Built Their Own Secure Version Of Google Chrome
[Image: Flickr user Leonid Mamchenkov]

The folks behind WhiteHat Security weren’t satisfied with the security and privacy found in exiting web browsers, so they decided to make their own–and quickly encountered a huge design challenge. The browser is always in incognito mode, which is “actually a very major design change,” says Robert Hansen, WhiteHat’s director of product management. “It’s not as easy as it sounds, for all kinds of different reasons.”

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The team chose to build on top of open source project Chromium, the project that serves as the basis for Google Chrome, so its interface should be familiar to Chrome users. But it differs from Chrome by opening by default in protected mode, the equivalent of Chrome’s incognito, so cookies, browser history, and other stored information are automatically purged when the browser’s closed. That means sites users access will have less information about them on return visits and that others using the same computer won’t have access to information unwittingly logged in browsing histories.

“We haven’t seen a browser out there that’s secure–and usable at the same time as being secure,” says Hansen.”There’s nothing stopping any one of the browser companies from doing what we’re doing, except that it doesn’t align with their business model,” since other browser makers get their money from advertising, he says.

Aviator’s Hardcore Approach to Privacy: How It Works

In addition to launching in private mode, Aviator includes an ad-blocking browser plugin called Disconnect, which is also available for ordinary Chrome, designed to filter out ads and tracking cookies. This should also make the browsing experience faster, Hansen says.

Aviator also sends the Do Not Track HTTP header that asks ad networks not to track user behavior from website to website, though it’s far from universally followed.

The Aviator team prefers to focus on what it calls “Can Not Track,” he said, making it technically impossible to track users from site to site.

“Instead of relying on the good graces of the advertisers, we built it in a way that ensures they cannot misbehave,” he said. Referrer headers, which specify where users came from when they access a site by clicking a link, aren’t sent across domains when users go from one website to another, making tracking users that much harder.

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Aviator uses the search engine DuckDuckGo as its default, since the company has pledged to safeguard its users’ privacy. The browser also blocks access to internal IP addresses, such as wireless routers and other computers on corporate LANs, in response to reports of attacks that trick web browsers into snooping around networks without their users’ knowledge.

Plugins like Java and Flash are blocked by default. That means users have to click to play videos or interactive content but prevents “drive-by download” attacks that install spyware or viruses on computers through Java or Flash exploits.

Some users might balk at the impact all these safeguards have on usability, Hansen acknowledges.

“Those users tend to choose usability over privacy and security,” he says. “But there’s a whole bunch of users that once they get used to it even a little bit, they’re going to realize what the value is to them.”

WhiteHat’s business relies on its reputation for safeguarding security and privacy, so it has no incentive to compromise the safety of its browser, he argues.

“If we ever were to go anti-privacy or anti-security that would break up our business model,” he says. “We would not be able to function.”

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A New Business Model For Browsers

WhiteHat intends to develop the browser as a tool to promote the company’s security consulting services and ultimately as a customizable product for corporate customers, says Hansen. Initially created to keep WhiteHat’s nontechnical employees safe from malware and tracking by advertisers, the Aviator browser is now available for any Mac user to download, and a Windows version is on its way.

“We basically want to have the first and only browser that we’re aware of that has an actual support model attached to it,” he says.

In the meantime, the Mac version of Aviator quickly drew tens of thousands of downloads based on social media buzz, showing there’s definite interest, he says.

“We get 5 to 10 emails a day asking for the Windows version,” Hansen says. “We’re getting a lot of encouragement.”

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