Attacking the Phishing Epidemic

As long as people can be tricked, there will always be phishing (or social engineering) on some level or another, but there’s a lot more that we can do with technology to reduce the effectiveness of phishing, and the number of people falling victim to common theft. Making phishing less effective ultimately increases the cost to the criminal, and reduces the total payoff. Few will argue that our existing authentication technologies are stuck in a time warp, with some websites still using standards that date back to the 1990s. Browser design hasn’t changed very much since the Netscape days either, so it’s no wonder many people are so easily fooled by website counterfeits.

You may have heard of a term called the line of death. This is used to describe the separation between the trusted components of a web browser (such as the address bar and toolbars) and the untrusted components of a browser, namely the browser window. Phishing is easy because this is a farce. We allow untrusted elements in the trusted windows (such as a favicon, which can display a fake lock icon), tolerate financial institutions that teach users to accept any variation of their domain, and use a tiny monochrome font that can make URLs easily mistakable, even if users were paying attention to them. Worse even, it’s the untrusted space that we’re telling users to conduct the trusted operations of authentication and credit card transactions – the untrusted website portion of the web browser!.

Our browsers are so awful today that the very best advice we can offer everyday people is to try and memorize all the domains their bank uses, and get a pair of glasses to look at the address bar. We’re teaching users to perform trusted transactions in a piece of software that has no clear demarcation of trust.

The authentication systems we use these days were designed to be able to conduct secure transactions with anyone online, not knowing who they are, but most users today know exactly who they’re doing business with; they do business with the same organizations over and over; yet to the average user, a URL or an SSL certificate with a slightly different name or fingerprint means nothing. The average user relies on the one thing we have no control over: What the content looks like.

I propose we flip this on its head.

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