A recent Java 7 update allows users to completely prevent Java applications from running inside browsers or to restrict how Web-based Java content is handled by the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) client. These features will benefit security-conscious users, but companies still have to find methods of isolating older Java versions, security experts say.
Java 7 Update 10 (7u10), released on Dec. 11, does not address any security vulnerabilities, but provides several security enhancements. According to its release notes, the new version provides users with "the ability to disable any Java application from running in the browser." This can be done from the "Security" tab on the Java control panel by clearing the "enable Java content in the browser" checkbox.
Security experts have long advised users to remove the Java plug-in from their Web browsers in order to protect themselves from the increasingly prevalent Web-based attacks that exploit Java vulnerabilities to infect computers with malware. However, in order to follow this advice users had to remove the plug-in from all of their browsers one by one and were often forced to redo the process after installing new Java updates.
Java 7u10 seems to make things easier by providing users with a central and persistent option for controlling Web-based Java content regardless of how many browsers they use. In addition, the new Java version provides users who can't afford to completely block such content with a method of controlling how potentially dangerous applets are handled.
Starting with Java 7u10 users have to ability to set security levels from low to very high for Web-based Java content, with medium being the default option. The medium security level will allow unsigned Java apps to run, but only if the Java version is considered secure. "You will be prompted if an unsigned app requests to run on an old version of Java," Oracle said in the tech notes for the new control panel security options.
Setting the security level to very high will prompt the user for permission every time a Java app, signed or unsigned, attempts to run in the browser. If the Java version is deemed insecure, unsigned apps won't run at all, regardless of what the user decides.
"The Security Level setting affects unsigned plug-in applets, Java Web Start applications, embedded JavaFX applications, and access to the native deployment toolkit plugins," Oracle said.
In addition, Java 7u10 introduces new dialogs that warn users when the installed JRE version is insecure and needs to be updated.
These changes don't make Java more secure in itself, but will likely make it easier for users to make their PCs more secure because they allow users to manage certain restrictions, Thomas Kristensen, chief security officer at vulnerability research and management firm Secunia, said Tuesday via email. However, in order for the majority of users to be protected, Oracle needs to set the new options in a restrictive way by default, because most users won't understand or know about the new restrictions, he said.
"The dialog warning about old and insecure versions is a big step in the right direction," Kristensen said. "Hopefully, it will make users think twice before running code on old Java versions."
Bogdan Botezatu, a senior e-threat analyst at antivirus vendor Bitdefender, said that every step Oracle takes in safeguarding the end user is welcome, but agreed with Kristensen that most users will probably not use the new features because they don't understand them and because they're unwilling to update their software in general. Because of Java's large install base -- over 3 billion devices -- cybercriminals are unlikely to stop targeting it, he said via email.
In fact, the new dialogs warning about the use of insecure JRE versions might end up being used against users in social engineering scams in a similar way in which rogue Flash Player update notifications were used to distribute malware, Botezatu said.
"In corporate environments, this Java update may not immediately show its benefits, especially for companies who have developed in-house applications relying on Java and are unable to update for compatibility issues," Botezatu said. "Despite the fact that Java editions are usually backwards compatible with applications already built, the massive improvements in Java 7 may be insufficiently tested in production for corporations to take the risk of mass deployment in live environments."
"Companies with a need for old Java must find ways to virtualize or otherwise isolate old Java instances," Kristensen said. "It may be costly in terms of convenience and perhaps efficiency to isolate or virtualize old Java for use with non-modern enterprise applications, but the risk of surfing the web with an old version of Java can not justify convenience and small savings."
"If these Java settings are manageable via GPO (Group Policy) or similar centralized management tools, then it is likely to improve security for companies who only run the latest version, or have successfully isolated old versions," Kristensen said.
However, not everyone agrees that companies should migrate to Java 7. Adam Gowdiak, the founder of Security Explorations, a Polish security company with a strong focus on Java vulnerability research, believes that from the prospect of vulnerabilities being found in the code, migrating to Java 7 represents a higher risk than continuing to use Java 6.
"Our research proved that Java 7 was far more insecure that its predecessor version," Gowdiak said via email. "There were also many indications that certain new features introduced into Java 7 such as the new Reflection API didn't run through any security review."
"We are not surprised that corporations are resistant when it comes to the upgrade to Java 7," Gowdiak said. "The number of security bugs we found in Java 7 speaks for itself."
Because of this, Oracle should extend the public support period for Java 6, he said.
According to Oracle's support roadmap for Java, the company will stop issuing public updates for Java 6 after February 2013. Companies interested in receiving Java 6 security advisories, patches and bug fixes, after that date will have to sign up for a commercial extended support service.