On Epiphany Security Updates and Stable Branches

One of the advantages of maintaining a web browser based on WebKit, like Epiphany, is that the vast majority of complexity is contained within WebKit. Epiphany itself doesn’t have any code for HTML parsing or rendering, multimedia playback, or JavaScript execution, or anything else that’s actually related to displaying web pages: all of the hard stuff is handled by WebKit. That means almost all of the security problems exist in WebKit’s code and not Epiphany’s code. While WebKit has been affected by over 200 CVEs in the past two years, and those issues do affect Epiphany, I believe nobody has reported a security issue in Epiphany’s code during that time. I’m sure a large part of that is simply because only the bad guys are looking, but the attack surface really is much, much smaller than that of WebKit. To my knowledge, the last time we fixed a security issue that affected a stable version of Epiphany was 2014.

Well that streak has unfortunately ended; you need to make sure to update to Epiphany 3.22.6, 3.20.7, or 3.18.11 as soon as possible (or Epiphany 3.23.5 if you’re testing our unstable series). If your distribution is not already preparing an update, insist that it do so. I’m not planning to discuss the embarrassing issue here — you can check the bug report if you’re interested — but rather on why I made new releases on three different branches. That’s quite unlike how we handle WebKitGTK+ updates! Distributions must always update to the very latest version of WebKitGTK+, as it is not practical to backport dozens of WebKit security fixes to older versions of WebKit. This is rarely a problem, because WebKitGTK+ has a strict policy to dictate when it’s acceptable to require new versions of runtime dependencies, designed to ensure roughly three years of WebKit updates without the need to upgrade any of its dependencies. But new major versions of Epiphany are usually incompatible with older releases of system libraries like GTK+, so it’s not practical or expected for distributions to update to new major versions.

My current working policy is to support three stable branches at once: the latest stable release (currently Epiphany 3.22), the previous stable release (currently Epiphany 3.20), and an LTS branch defined by whatever’s currently in Ubuntu LTS and elementary OS (currently Epiphany 3.18). It was nice of elementary OS to make Epiphany its default web browser, and I would hardly want to make it difficult for its users to receive updates.

Three branches can be annoying at times, and it’s a lot more than is typical for a GNOME application, but a web browser is not a typical application. For better or for worse, the majority of our users are going to be stuck on Epiphany 3.18 for a long time, and it would be a shame to leave them completely without updates. That said, the 3.18 and 3.20 branches are very stable and only getting bugfixes and occasional releases for the most serious issues. In contrast, I try to backport all significant bugfixes to the 3.22 branch and do a new release every month or thereabouts.

So that’s why I just released another update for Epiphany 3.18, which was originally released in September 2015. Compare this to the long-term support policies of Chrome (which supports only the latest version of the browser, and only for six weeks) or Firefox (which provides nine months of support for an ESR release), and I think we compare quite favorably. (A stable WebKit series like 2.14 is only supported for six months, but that’s comparable to Firefox.) Not bad?