Mobile Browsers Just Not Secure

Thursday, December 6, 2012 @ 04:12 PM gHale

Mobile devices continue to strike fear in the hearts of security professionals and the news doesn’t get any better with the release of a new study showing mobile browsers are so unsafe that even experts are unable to detect when their smartphones have landed on potentially dangerous websites.

Like their counterparts for desktop platforms, mobile browsers incorporate a range of security and cryptographic tools to provide a secure Web-browsing experience.

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However, in one critical area that informs user decisions — the incorporation of tiny graphical indicators in a browser’s URL field — all of the leading mobile browsers fail to meet security guidelines recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for browser safety, leaving even expert users with no way to determine if the websites they visit are real or imposter sites phishing for personal data, according to a study from Georgia Tech.

“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, and they serve to alert users when their connection to the destination website is secure and the website they see is actually the site they 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.

W3C issued specific recommendations for how SSL indicators should go into a browser’s user interface, and for the most part, Traynor said, desktop browsers do a good job of following those recommendations. In mobile browsers, however, the guidelines are inconsistent at best and often not at all.

The principal reason for this, Traynor said, is the much smaller screen size with which designers of mobile browsers have to work. Often there simply isn’t room to incorporate SSL indicators in the same way as with desktop browsers. However, given that mobile devices will face more frequent attacks from cyber criminals, the vulnerability is almost sure to lead to increased cyber crime unless it ends up 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.”

Traynor and Amrutkar said the study, essentially a measurement analysis of the current state of visual security indicators in mobile browsers, is a necessary first step in developing a uniform set of security recommendations that can apply to mobile browsers.

“We understand the dilemma facing designers of mobile browsers, and it looks like all of them tried to do the best they could in balancing everything that has to fit within those small screens,” Traynor said. “But the fact is that all of them ended up doing something just a little different — and all inferior to desktop browsers. With a little coordination, we can do a better job and make mobile browsing a safer experience for all users.”

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