Browser Makers Band Together Against Phishers

Developers speaking for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Konqueror recently met in Toronto to discuss how their browsers could better identify trusted and suspicious Web sites.

Gregg Keizer, Contributor

November 23, 2005

4 Min Read

Representatives from the most prominent browser makers -- including Microsoft and Mozilla -- recently gathered to discuss ways to make it clearer to users which Web sites are safe and which are fake.

Developers speaking for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Konqueror met in Toronto last week to hash over ideas on how their browsers could better identify trusted and suspicious Web sites. Additionally, they talked about changes to browser pop-ups that would make it more difficult for scammers to spoof sites or trick users into divulging personal information such as bank or credit card account numbers and passwords.

"This should go a long way toward addressing phishing attack issues," said George Staikos, a developer for the open-source Linux/Unix KDE graphical environment, and the host of the browser meeting in his Toronto office.

Rob Franco, lead program manager for IE's security group, represented Microsoft, and explained his team's take in a blog entry on the official IE site.

"If the browsers and the Certification Authority industry can generate better guidelines to identify sites, we want to take the experience in the address bar a step further to help create a positive experience for rigorously-identified HTTPS sites," Franco wrote.

The basic plan would be for all browsers to tint the address bar green when users visit major-brand sites with a "highly-assured" digital certificate. Suspicious sites that might be sources of phishing scams would be indicated by a red address bar. A padlock icon would be also be set in the address bar, where it's more visible, when users are at an SSL-secured page.

"We want to show the users a special display to indicate they're in fact at a reputable site, as opposed to one which is only masquerading as one, said Staikos.

The move couldn't come too soon, as phishers have already used self-signed certificates to fool users into trusting fraudulent sites.

Additionally, the plan would put an address bar in every browser window, even those popped up or under as forms, to defeat fraudsters' camouflaging tricks. Such tactics are common; the old-but-still-effective bogus security alert is perhaps the best-known example. These pop-ups resemble dialog boxes -- as if the operating system had cranked them out -- but are in fact browser windows stripped of an address bar.

"A missing address bar creates a chance for a fraudster to forge an address of their own," noted Franco.

"This will prevent sites from mimicking a local application window or make it look like a security dialog box," added Staikos. "By forcing the address and status bar to appear on every window, it will be very clear that this is still in a browser window, and so connected to the network."

Some browsers already include elements of the plan. Firefox and the open-source Konqueror, for example, put the padlock icon in the address bar, while the under-development Internet Explorer 7 uses the green/red combination in its integrated anti-phishing filter.

The browser builders and certificate issuing companies have yet to come up with a new way of creating more rigorously-checked certificates, but Staikos was confident it will happen. "All parties recognize that there are issues with current certificates, and over the past eight months, we've had numerous discussions. The major signing authorities know this is an open issue, and they'll come to some sort of agreement."

No promises were made at the meeting that all four browser makers will adopt the ideas, in part because representatives of the open-source Firefox and Konqueror can only pass on recommendations to their developers.

"That's one of the problems with open source, we don't have someone who pulls all the strings," Staikos said. "All we can do is bring recommendations.

"But I think it's extremely likely, say 99.9 percent, that Konqueror goes this way," he added. "And I think Firefox will, too."

Frank Hecker, one of the two Firefox developers who attended the meeting, backed up Staikos.

"I haven't made any commitments on behalf of the Mozilla project, nor do I have the power to do so," Hecker wrote on his blog. "I can only make suggestions. Final decisions on the user interface for Firefox, Thunderbird, etc., are up to the development teams for those products."

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