Many people browse the Internet without much thought to what is
happening behind the scenes. Active content and cookies are common
elements that may pose hidden risks when viewed in a browser or email
What is active content?
To increase functionality or add design embellishments, web sites
often rely on scripts that execute programs within the web browser.
This active content can be used to create "splash pages" or options
like drop-down menus. Unfortunately, these scripts are often a way for
attackers to download or execute malicious code on a user's computer.
examples are VBScript, ECMAScript, and JScript) and is probably
and other scripts are popular because users expect the
functionality and "look" that it provides, and it's easy to
incorporate (many common software programs for building web sites
or knowledge required of the user). However, because of these
reasons, attackers can manipulate it to their own purposes. A
redirecting users from a legitimate web site to a malicious one
that may download viruses or collect personal information.
ActiveX controls are actual programs that reside on your computer
or can be downloaded over the network into your browser. If
executed by attackers, untrustworthy ActiveX controls may be able
to do anything on your computer that you can do (such as running
spyware and collecting personal information, connecting to other
computers, and potentially doing other damage). Java applets
usually run in a more restricted environment, but if that
environment isn't secure, then malicious Java applets may create
opportunities for attack as well.
but they are common tools for attackers. You can prevent active
content from running in most browsers, but realize that the added
security may limit functionality and break features of some sites you
visit. Before clicking on a link to a web site that you are not
familiar with or do not trust, take the precaution of disabling active
These same risks may also apply to the email program you use. Many
email clients use the same programs as web browsers to display HTML,
ActiveX often apply to email. Viewing messages as plain text may
resolve this problem.
What are cookies?
When you browse the Internet, information about your computer may be
collected and stored. This information might be general information
about your computer (such as IP address, the domain you used to
connect (e.g., .edu, .com, .net), and the type of browser you used).
It might also be more specific information about your browsing habits
(such as the last time you visited a particular web site or your
personal preferences for viewing that site).
Cookies can be saved for varying lengths of time:
- Session cookies - Session cookies store information only as long
as you're using the browser; once you close the browser, the
information is erased. The primary purpose of session cookies is
to help with navigation, such as by indicating whether or not
you've already visited a particular page and retaining information
about your preferences once you've visited a page.
- Persistent cookies - Persistent cookies are stored on your
computer so that your personal preferences can be retained. In
most browsers, you can adjust the length of time that persistent
cookies are stored. It is because of these cookies that your email
address appears by default when you open your Yahoo! or Hotmail
email account, or your personalized home page appears when you
visit your favorite online merchant. If an attacker gains access
to your computer, he or she may be able to gather personal
information about you through these files.
To increase your level of security, consider adjusting your privacy
and security settings to block or limit cookies in your web browser
(see Evaluating Your Web Browser's Security Settings for more
information). To make sure that other sites are not collecting
personal information about you without your knowledge, choose to only
allow cookies for the web site you are visiting; block or limit
cookies from a third-party. If you are using a public computer, you
should make sure that cookies are disabled to prevent other people
from accessing or using your personal information.
Author: Mindi McDowell
The above article is reproduced with the kind permission of US-CERT (United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team) and the original document may be viewed by clicking here