1. A Weak Web of Trust

    Every time I'm forced to waste small fractions of my life navigating (and re-navigating) the Air Canada web site, I run into new points of frustration. For example, this week, I couldn't check pricing on a trip because of a JavaScript error that prevented the multi-city page from allowing me to submit the form.

    Errors (which have since been fixed) aside, I was finally able to complete my reservation, today, and was reminded of an issue of cross-site trust that I suspect will become more and more of a problem, as sites and businesses continue to deepen their level of cooperation. This type of collaboration can be good or bad for end users, and in this case, what seems beneficial is actually extremely problematic.

    The fundamental source of this problem is two-fold: the end-user's inability to know who is receiving trusted information, and the same user's obligation to determine if the identified party should receive this information in the first place.

    I've seen it happen in a few places in the past few weeks (my colleague Paul pointed out the Google tie-in that I mention below). I'll comment on these from least- to most-severe/dangerous.


    Let's first look at Google. Five years ago (2003), Google acquired Blogger, a blogging service site. Today, if you visit Blogger, you'll be invited to conveniently sign in using your Google Account:

    So, what's the problem? It's simple: there's no easy way to tell that Google actually owns Blogger, and that blogger.com should be trusted with your Google credentials. Sure, I know that Blogger is part of the GOOG, and—being up-to-date on things-Web—you probably know... but does your mother? your friends? My wife didn't know.

    Indeed, Blogger's main page does say "Copyright © 1999 – 2008 Google" but there's no real, hard link between the two. I could falsely put a similar notice on any of my domains, and it would allow me to steal accounts of anyone who thinks that this is a reasonable practice.

    Fortunately, for Blogger users, your gmail account is a relatively low risk (we do use Google docs to plan certain business things that would be considered "confidential" but not necessarily "critically secret.")


    To step up to what I consider a much more problematic example of "convenient business relationship gone bad" our attention turns to eBay's purchase of Paypal (2002).

    I like to browse eBay from time to time, especially to find reasonable prices on brewing stuff. I've won a couple auctions in the past couple months, and I've noticed a very peculiar and dangerous tie-in like the Blogger-Google connection above.

    eBay's relationship with Paypal is certainly no secret. I would guess that most eBay regulars generally use Paypal to complete transactions, and many of those are aware that they are, in fact, the same people. Admittedly, this problem might be more or less serious than I'm about to explain, but the fundamental issue is the same—one of trust.

    I can't grab a screen shot of this one because I'm unwilling to complete a transaction just for the sake of this blog entry, so you'll have to trust me for this example (or you may have already noticed for yourself). It used to be that when paying a seller via Paypal, you'd be shuttled off to the Paypal site, and returned to eBay upon transaction completion. This is how nearly all Paypal transactions work: merchant passes user off to Paypal to pay, and user is redirected to merchant.

    Over the past few weeks (perhaps months, now), there has been a new branding scheme applied to eBay-specific Paypal transactions. When paying, buyers are still (re)directed to paypal.com, but instead of standard Paypal greetings, text, images and colours, users are asked to log into a page that is decorated with eBay's brand (logo, colours, language).

    Business-conglomerate aside, this is a very dangerous precedent for Paypal to set. Paypal is understandably one of the biggest targets for phishing scams, and I think it would be in their best interest to keep their site very clearly labeled "Paypal" even if it is "just" eBay. They are quick to attempt to educate their users on the dangers of phishing, and their tips even indicate such now-ambiguous suggestions as "Don't use the same password for PayPal and other online services such as AOL, eBay, MSN, or Yahoo." (Emphasis mine.)

    What about sites that LOOK like eBay, but are actually Paypal? Again, I bet that would easily confuse someone who's less Web-savvy.


    Getting back to the problems I had with Air Canada, today, let's discuss the most idiotic and dangerous idea of them all: Verified by Visa.

    Verified by Visa is a programme introduced by Visa, in 2001, to help reduce fraudulent credit transactions online by shifting part of the responsibility of preventing fraud from the merchant to the card's issuing bank. The idea is to insert a verification step into an online merchant's purchase process to have a bank essentially vouch for a given card. In this case, Air Canada is the merchant, and Royal Bank of Canada is my issuing bank.

    Once again, on the surface, this sounds like a mild inconvenience to end users to create a significant increase in security. In most cases, I believe it does actually do this. Here's my problem: the verification step is inserted into the merchant's page via an iframe. The user is asked for his/her online banking password within this frame, which is actually the issuing bank's web site. I can verify this by loading and inspecting the source, determining that the iframe (probably(!!)) is actually coming from my bank's site (I say "probably" because there COULD be some hard-to-find, obfuscated JavaScript hiding, somewhere that changes this URL and/or loads a different frame/source). One cannot reasonably expect casual users to have the necessary HTML-parsing abilities to determine that it's safe to give this page (that appears to actually be the merchant's site, according to the address bar of my browser, by the way) their online banking password. Again, I'm unwilling to purchase a multi-hundred dollar plane ticket to grab a screen shot to illustrate this point. Sorry (-:


    This whole idea of third-party verification without somehow allowing the user to easily intercept/inspect the process is dangerous and sounds like a ripe venue for increased phishing/social engineering exploits. "Reliably check and/or type the URL yourself (to ensure that it matches the site's content and your intent)" is probably the number-one rule for avoiding phishing scams, and the implementations above make it impossible for casual users to take even the most basic of precautions.

    Some tips/rules (in my opinion):

    • You have a URL. It's secured by SSL. Use it. Don't split users off onto different sites. Don't allow login from third-party domains (instead direct the user to your main domain, and securely redirect them back to the main content).
    • Optionally use a system like OpenID (I'm looking at you, Blogger).
    • Don't embed critical information forms into a page hosted on a different domain than one that should be trusted with said information; instead, redirect as above
    • It's bad form to brand brand your trusted domain with a different site's scheme—it's confusing and dangerous.
    • Make your intentions clear to users. Make the recipient of trusted information painfully obvious to the end user, and do so through a mechanism that the user is prone to actually trust—read: use the URL/Address Bar, and not text "don't worry, this form on thanksforthecreditcard.example.com actually submits to paypal.com; you're safe!
    • NEVER expect casual users to know how to figure out where an iframe is sourcing from, or where a form submits.

    Google, Paypal, Visa: shame on you. You're violating some of the most fundamental social Web security rules.