By Patrick Marshall

Blog archive
https signals a secure site

Mobile users get no clue they're visiting malicious sites

Desktop Web browsers use a number of indicators to help users safely navigate the risky seas of the World Wide Web, but as more users go online with mobile devices they are not seeing critical security information, according to a study from Georgia Tech.

Mobile browsers can use security features such as Secure Sockets Layer and Transport Layer Security. But you might not know if these features are in operation because the lock logo or HTTPS we see in the URL window of a desktop browser might not be there on your smart phone.

“The drastic reduction in screen size and the accompanying reorganization of screen real estate significantly changes the use and consistency of the security indicators and certificate information that alert users of site identity and the presence of strong cryptographic algorithms,” according to a Georgia Tech-led team of researchers.

As a result, even security experts using 10 of the most popular mobile browsers were unable to determine, from information presented on the screen, whether they were visiting a malicious site.
User demand is bringing mobile devices into the enterprise, and this lack of browser assurance could add one more risk for government workers using mobile devices to access resources.

It isn’t that the browsers do not provide the information at all, said Chaitrali Amrutkar, a doctoral student at Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science and principal author of the paper. “The manufacturers have included a subset of indicators,” in their browsers, she said. But their use is inconsistent, limited and difficult to see. “They are very different when it comes to the information provided,” she said.

Five of the browsers tested, for example, do not have an interface to let users look at digital certificate information from a website being visited. “I won’t be able to tell who signed the cert,” she said.

If experts can’t tell whether the visited site is secure, what chance do the average users have? As it turns out, the average mobile users might not be any worse off without the information, because they tend to ignore it when it is available anyway. That probably is one reason why studies have found mobile users are more likely to be phishing victims.

The Georgia Tech paper doesn’t address the issue of how to make users do what they should do. “This is just a first step,” providing an assessment of the shortcomings of the browsers, Amrutkar said. What to do about those shortcomings is a separate issue that needs to be addressed by vendors and the security community.

Then they can worry about making the users pay attention.

Posted by William Jackson on Dec 10, 2012 at 9:39 AM


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