Applet Security

The possibility of surfing the Net, wandering across a random page, playing an applet and catching a virus is a fear that has scared many uninformed people away from Java. This fear has also driven a lot of the development of Java in the direction it's gone. Earlier I discussed various security features of Java including automatic garbage collection, the elimination of pointer arithmetic and the Java interpreter. These serve the dual purpose of making the language simple for programmers and secure for users. You can surf the web without worrying that a Java applet will format your hard disk or introduce a virus into your system.

In fact both Java applets and applications are much safer in practice than code written in traditional languages. This is because even code from trusted sources is likely to have bugs. However Java programs are much less susceptible to common bugs involving memory access than are programs written in traditional languages like C. Furthermore the Java runtime environment provides a fairly robust means of trapping bugs before they bring down your system. Most users have many more problems with bugs than they do with deliberately malicious code. Although users of Java applications aren't protected from out and out malicious code, they are largely protected from programmer errors.

Applets implement additional security restrictions that protect users from malicious code too. This is accomplished through the java.lang.SecurityManager class. This class is subclassed to provide different security environments in different virtual machines. Regrettably implementing this additional level of protection does somewhat restrict the actions an applet can perform. Let's explore exactly what an applet can and cannot do.

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Copyright 1997 Elliotte Rusty Harold
Last Modified August 1, 1997