Oracle Can’t Secure the Java Plug-in, So Why Is It Still Enabled By Default?

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Java was responsible for 91 percent of all computer compromises in 2013. Most people not only have the Java browser plug-in enabled — they’re using an out-of-date, vulnerable version. Hey, Oracle — it’s time to disable that plug-in by default.

Oracle knows the situation is a disaster. They’ve given up on the Java plug-in’s security sandbox, originally designed to protect you from malicious Java applets. Java applets on the web get complete access to your system with the default settings.

The Java Browser Plug-in is a Complete Disaster

Defenders of Java tend to complain whenever sites like ours write that Java is extremely insecure. “That’s just the browser plug-in,” they say — acknowledging how broken it is. But that insecure browser plug-in is enabled by default in every single installation of Java out there. The statistics speak for themselves. Even here at How-To Geek, 95 percent of our non-mobile visitors have the Java plug-in enabled. And we’re a website that keeps telling our readers to uninstall Java or at least disable the plug-in.

Internet-wide, studies keep showing that the majority of computers with Java installed have an out-of-date Java browser plug-in available for malicious websites to ravage. In 2013, a study by Websense Security Labs showed that 80 percent of computers had out-of-date, vulnerable versions of Java. Even the most charitable studies are scary — they tend to claim more than 50 percent of Java plug-ins are out-of-date.

In 2014, Cisco’s annual security report said 91 percent of all attacks in 2013 were against Java. Oracle even tries to take advantage of this problem by bundling the terrible Ask Toolbar and other junkware with Java updates — stay classy, Oracle.

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Oracle Gave Up on the Java Plug-in’s Sandboxing

The Java plug-in runs a Java program — or “Java applet” — embedded on a web page, similar to how Adobe Flash works. Because Java is a complex language used for everything from desktop applications to server software, the plug-in was originally designed to run these Java programs in a secure sandbox. This would prevent them from doing nasty things to your system, even if they tried.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, there’s a seemingly never-ending stream of vulnerabilities that allow Java applets to escape the sandbox and run roughshod over your system.

Oracle realizes the sandbox is now basically broken, so the sandbox is now basically dead. They’ve given up on it. By default, Java will no longer run “unsigned” applets. Running unsigned applets shouldn’t be a problem if the security sandbox was trustworthy — that’s why it’s generally not a problem to run any Adobe Flash content you find on the web. Even if there are vulnerabilities in Flash, they’re fixed and Adobe doesn’t give up on Flash’s sandboxing.

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By default, Java will only load signed applets. That sounds fine, like a good security improvement. However, there’s a serious consequence here. When a Java applet is signed, it’s considered “trusted” and it doesn’t use the sandbox. As Java’s warning message puts it:

“This application will run with unrestricted access which may put your computer and personal information at risk.”

Even Oracle’s own Java version check applet — a simple little applet that runs Java to check your installed version and tells you if you need to update — requires this full system access. That’s completely insane.

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In other words, Java really has given up on the sandbox. By default, you can either not run a Java applet or run it with full access to your system. There’s no way to use the sandbox unless you tweak Java’s security settings. The sandbox is so untrustworthy that every bit of Java code you encounter online needs full access to your system. You might as well just download a Java program and run it rather than relying on the browser plug-in, which doesn’t offer the additional security it was originally designed to provide.

As one Java developer explained: “Oracle is intentionally killing off the Java security sandbox under the pretense of improving security.”

Web Browsers Are Disabling It On Their Own

Thankfully, web browsers are stepping in to fix Oracle’s inaction. Even if you have the Java browser plug-in installed and enabled, Chrome and Firefox won’t load Java content by default. They use “click-to-play” for Java content.

Internet Explorer still automatically loads Java content. Internet Explorer has improved somewhat —  it finally began blocking out-of-date, vulnerable ActiveX controls along with the “Windows 8.1 August Update” (aka Windows 8.1 Update 2) in August, 2014. Chrome and Firefox have been doing this for much longer. Internet Explorer is behind other browsers here — again.

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How to Disable the Java Plug-in

Everyone who needs Java installed should at least disable the plug-in from the java Control Panel. With recent versions of Java, you can tap the Windows key once to open the Start menu or Start screen, type “Java,” and then click the “Configure Java” shortcut. On the Security tab, uncheck the “Enable Java content in the browser” option.

Even after you disable the plug-in, Minecraft and any other desktop application that depends on Java will run just fine. This will only block Java applets embedded on web pages.

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Yes, Java applets still exist in the wild. You’ll probably find them most frequently on internal sites where some company has an ancient application written as a Java applet. But Java applets are a dead technology and they’re vanishing from the consumer web. They were supposed to compete with Flash, but they lost. Even if you need Java, you probably don’t need the plug-in.

The occasional company or user that does need the Java browser plug-in should have to go into Java’s Control Panel and choose to enable it. The plug-in should be considered a legacy compatibility option.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.