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Firefox getting built-in HTML5-based PDF viewer to improve security

Lucian Constantin | Jan. 14, 2013
A built-in PDF viewer component based on JavaScript and HTML5 Web technologies has been added to the beta version of Firefox 19, Mozilla said Friday.

A built-in PDF viewer component based on JavaScript and HTML5 Web technologies has been added to the beta version of Firefox 19, Mozilla said Friday.

The browser maker described the built-in PDF viewer as more secure and safer than proprietary PDF viewing plug-ins, like those installed by Adobe Reader or Foxit Reader. However, several security experts noted that it probably won't be free of vulnerabilities.

"For a number of years there have been several plugins for viewing PDFs within Firefox," Mozilla Engineering Manager Bill Walker and Mozilla Software Engineer Brendan Dahl said Friday in a blog post. "Many of these plugins come with proprietary closed source code that could potentially expose users to security vulnerabilities. PDF viewing plugins also come with extra code to do many things that Firefox already does well with no proprietary code, such as drawing images and text."

The built-in PDF viewer currently being tested stems from a Mozilla Labs project called PDF.js. "The PDF.js project clearly shows that HTML5 and JavaScript are now powerful enough to create applications that could previously have only been created as native applications," the Mozilla software engineers said. "Not only do most PDFs load and render quickly, they run securely and have an interface that feels at home in the browser."

Since the viewer uses standard HTML5 APIs (application programming interfaces) it can also run in different browsers and on different platforms, like tablets and mobile phones. A live demo of the viewer running as a Web application is available on the PDF.js website.

"The PDF.js powered viewer in Firefox Beta is the first step to it becoming a fully integrated feature within the release version of Firefox so its benefits can be enjoyed by all Firefox users," the Mozilla software engineers said.

Mozilla did not clarify whether this viewer will be used by default even in cases when a third-party PDF viewing plug-in is installed. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Security experts believe that the built-in PDF viewer will provide more security for users, but not necessarily because it won't be prone to vulnerabilities as third-party PDF viewer plug-ins are.

Such an implementation might provide more security to the end user because its user base will be smaller compared to that of Adobe Reader and cybercriminals will continue to focus on exploiting the most popular pieces of software, Stefan Tanase, a senior security researcher at antivirus vendor Kaspersky Lab, said via email. "While I am excited to see Firefox giving extra thought to the security of its users, what worries me is that even the technologies on which PDF.js is based can be vulnerable."


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