It’s a fundamental rule of Web security: a Web browser must be able to defend itself against a hostile website. Presently, in our opinion, the market share leading browsers cannot do this adequately. This is an every day threat to personal security and privacy for the more than one billion people online, which includes us. We’ve long held and shared this point of view at WhiteHat Security. Like any sufficiently large company, we have many internal staff members who aren’t as tech savvy as WhiteHat’s Threat Research Center, so we had the same kind of security problem that the rest of the industry had: we had to rely on educating our users, because no browser on the market was suitable for our security needs. But education is a flawed approach – there are always new users and new security guidelines. So instead of engaging in a lengthy educational campaign, we began designing an internal browser that would be secure and privacy-protecting enough for our own users — by default. Over the years a great many people — friends, family members, and colleagues alike — have asked us what browser we recommend, even asked us what browser their children should use. Aviator became our answer.
The attacks a website can generate against a visiting browser are diverse and complex, but can be broadly categorized in two types. The first type of attack is designed to escape the confines of the browser walls and infect the desktop with malware. Today’s top tier browser defenses include software security in the browser core, an accompanying sandbox, URL blacklists, silent-updates, and plug-in click-to-play. Well-known browser vendors have done a great job in this regard and should be commended. No one wins when users desktops become part of a botnet.
Unfortunately, the second type of browser attack has been left largely undefended. These attacks are pernicious and carry out their exploits within the browser walls. They typically don’t implant malware, but they are indeed hazardous to online security and privacy. I’ve previously written up a lengthy 8-part blog post series on the subject documenting the problems. For a variety of reasons, these issues have not been addressed by the leading browser vendors. Rather than continue asking for updates that would likely never come, we decided we could do it ourselves.
To create Aviator we leveraged open source Chromium, the same browser core used by Google Chrome. Then, because the BSD license of Chromium allows us, we made many very particular changes to the code and configuration to enhance security and privacy. We named our product Aviator. Many people are eager to learn what exactly the differences are, so let’s go over them.
- Protected Mode (Incognito Mode) / Not Protected Mode:
TL;DR All Web history, cache, cookies, auto-complete, and local storage data is deleted after restart.
Most people are unaware that there are 12 or more locations that websites may store cookie and cookie-like data in a browser. Cookies are typically used to track your surfing habits from one website to the next, but they also expose your online activity to nosy people with access to your computer. Protected Mode purges these storage areas automatically with each browser restart. While other browsers have this feature or something similar, it is not enabled by default, which can make it a chore to use. Aviator launches directly into Protected Mode by default and clearly indicates the mode of the current window. The security / privacy side effect of Protected Mode also helps protect against browser auto-complete hacking, login detection, and deanonymization via clickjacking by reducing the amount of session states you have open – due to an intentional lack of persistence in the browser over different sessions.
- Connection Control:
TL;DR Rules for controlling the connections made by Aviator. By default, Aviator blocks Intranet IP-addresses (RFC1918).
When you visit a website, it can instruct your browser to make potentially dangerous connections to internal IP addresses on your network — IP addresses that could not otherwise be connected to from the outside (NAT). Exploitation may lead to simple reconnaissance of internet networks, or it may permanently compromise your network by overwriting the firmware on the router. Without installing special third-party software, it’s impossible to block any bit of Web code from carrying out browser-based intranet hacking. If Aviator happens to be blocking something you want to be able to get to, Connection Control allows the user to create custom rules — or temporarily use another browser.
- Disconnect bundled (Disconnect.me):
TL;DR Blocks ads and 3rd-party trackers.Essentially every ad on every website your browser encounters is tracking you, storing bits of information about where you go and what you do. These ads, along with invisible 3rd-party trackers, also often carry malware designed to exploit your browser when you load a page, or to try to trick you into installing something should you choose to click on it. Since ads can be authored by anyone, including attackers, both ads and trackers may also harness your browser to hack other systems, hack your intranet, incriminate you, etc. Then of course the visuals in the ads themselves are often distasteful, offensive, and inappropriate, especially for children. To help protect against tracking, login detection and deanonymization, auto cross-site scripting, drive-by-downloads, and evil cross-site request forgery delivered through malicious ads, we bundled in the Disconnect extension, which is specifically designed to block ads and trackers. According to the Chrome web store, over 400,000 people are already using Disconnect to protect their privacy. Whether you use Aviator or not, we recommend that you use Disconnect too (Chrome / Firefox supported). We understand many publishers depend on advertising to fund the content. They also must understand that many who use ad blocking software aren’t necessarily anti-advertising, but more pro security and privacy. Ads are dangerous. Publishers should simply ask visitors to enable ads on the website to support the content they want to see, which Disconnect’s icon makes it easy to do with a couple of mouse-clicks. This puts the power and the choice into the hands of the user, which is where we believe it should be.
- Block 3rd-party Cookies:
TL;DR Default configuration update. While it’s very nice that cookies, including 3rd-party cookies, are deleted when the browser is closed, it’s even better when 3rd-party cookies are not allowed in the first place. Blocking 3rd-party cookies helps protect against tracking, login detection, and deanonymization during the current browser session.
- DuckDuckGo replaces Google search:
TL;DR Privacy enhanced replacement for the default search engine. It is well-known that Google search makes the company billions of dollars annually via user advertising and user tracking / profiling. DuckDuckGo promises exactly the opposite, “Search anonymously. Find instantly.” We felt that that was a much better default option. Of course if you prefer another search engine (including Google), you are free to change the setting.
- Limit Referer Leaks:
TL;DR Referers no longer leak cross-domain, but are only sent same-domain by default. When clicking from one link to the next, browsers will tell the destination website where the click came from via the Referer header (intentionally misspelled). Doing so could possibly leak sensitive information such as the search keywords used, internal IPs/hostnames, session tokens, etc. These leaks are often caused by the referring URL and offer little, if any, benefit to the user. Aviator therefore only sends these headers within the same domain.
- Plug-Ins Click-to-Play:
TL;DR Default configuration update enabled by default. Plug-ins (E.g. Flash and Java) are a source for tracking, malware exploitation, and general annoyance. Plug-ins often keep their own storage for cookie-like data, which isn’t easy to delete, especially from within the browser. Plug-ins are also a huge attack vector for malware infection. Your browser might be secure, but the plug-ins are not and one must update constantly. Then of course all those annoying sounds and visuals made by plug-ins which are difficult to identify and block once they load. So, we blocked them all by default. When you want to run a plug-in, say on YouTube, just one-click on the puzzle piece. If you want a website to always load the plug-ins, that’s a configuration change as well. “Always allow plug-ins on…”
- Limit data leakage to Google:
TL;DR Default configuration update. In Aviator we’ve disabled “Use a web service to help resolve navigation errors” and “Use a prediction service to help complete searches and URLs typed in the address bar” by default. We also removed all options to sync / login to Google, and the tracking traffic sent to Google upon Chromium installation. For many of the same reasons that we have defaulted to DuckDuckGo as a search engine, we have limited what is sent in the browser to Google to protect your privacy. If you chose to use Google services, that is your choice. If you chose not to though, it can be difficult in some browsers. Again, our mantra is choice – and this gives you the choice.
- Do Not Track:
TL;DR Default configuration update. Enabled by default. While we prefer “Can-Not-Track” to “Do-Not-Track”, we figure it was safe enough to enable the “Do Not Track” signal by default in the event it gains traction.
We so far have appreciated the response to WhiteHat Aviator and welcome additional questions and feedback. Our goal is to continue to make this a better and more secure browser option for consumers. Please continue to spread the word and share your thoughts with us. Please download it and give it a test run. Let us know what you think! Click here to learn more about the Aviator browser.