Mobile Browsers Susceptible to Dangerous Websites

According to a recent study by Georgia Tech, even cyber-security experts are unable to determine when their smartphone browsers land on potentially dangerous websites.

Mobile browsers incorporate cryptographic tools and a range of security in order to provide secure Web-browsing, but that security is not enough. All of the leading mobile browsers fail to meet security guidelines recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This lack of security leaves even expert users unable to if websites they visit are real or imposter sites phishing for personal data.

“We found vulnerabilities in all 10 of the mobile browsers we tested, which together account for more than 90 percent of the mobile browsers in use today in the United States,” said Patrick Traynor, assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science. “The basic question we asked was, ‘Does this browser provide enough information for even an information-security expert to determine security standing?’ With all 10 of the leading browsers on the market today, the answer was no.”

The graphic icons at issue are called either SSL (“secure sockets layer”) or TLS (“transport layer security”) indicators, which alert users when connection to destination websites is secure and that the website in view is the correct site viewers intended to visit. The tiny “lock” icon that typically appears in a desktop browser window when users are providing payment information in an online transaction is one example of an SSL indicator. Another is the “https” keyword that appears in the beginning of a desktop browser’s URL field.

For mobile browsers, the ability to incorporate SSL indicators is much more difficult to do because there simply isn’t enough room to incorporate SSL indicators in same way as with desktop browsers. Given that mobile devices are widely predicted to face more frequent attacks from cyber-criminals, the vulnerability is almost sure to lead to increased cyber-crime unless it is addressed.

“Research has shown that mobile browser users are three times more likely to access phishing sites than users of desktop browsers,” said Chaitrali Amrutkar, a Ph.D. student in the School of Computer Science and principal author of the paper that described the SSL research. “Is that all due to the lack of these SSL indicators? Probably not, but giving these tools a consistent and complete presence in mobile browsers would definitely help.”

The paper,“Measuring SSL Indicators on Mobile Browsers: Extended Life, or End of the Road,” is essentially a measurement analysis of the current state of visual security indicators in mobile browsers, and is a necessary first step in developing a uniform set of security recommendations that can apply to mobile browsers.

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