Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Buyer beware: Online shopping hazards detailed by UMass Amherst computer scientist

20.02.2006


To present at AAAS meeting in St. Louis



Consumers who shop online may be risking their privacy with every purchase, contends University of Massachusetts Amherst computer scientist Kevin Fu. His research suggests that a confluence of factors, including the widespread use of cookies and demand for quick and easy transactions, results in Web sites that are often insecure.

"Much Web security rests on illusion and hope," says Fu, who will discuss how Web sites leak private information on Saturday, Feb. 18 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in St. Louis.


Most Web users have heard of cookies, the small chunks of information that a Web server sends to a browser to identify the user at a later date. Cookies are stored on the browser computer’s hard drive and each time a user revisits a site the cookie is sent back to the server, telling it, "Hi, it’s me again."

"Cookies are insecure, no matter what you do," says Fu. While they aren’t that dangerous when used for things like storing preferences on personalized Web pages (they are how Yahoo remembers that a user wants science headlines displayed, for example) they are also employed to authenticate users who are shopping online. It’s these so-called "authentication cookies" that are often exploitable, says Fu.

Cookies work by replaying the same information. While they may be associated with a password to start, the cookie is how a site remembers a user, and allows them to skip a log-in page. So someone who has accessed a series of cookies on a hard drive can look for a pattern and then backtrack to come up with the algorithm that generated them. "It’s the kind of thing a bored teenager could do in a few hours," says Fu.

Cookies aren’t the only problem, says Fu. Every Web site has its own method of authenticating users, and there is no set standard for Web site security--even that little padlock icon doesn’t mean much, he says. Many sites use what Fu calls "home-brew cryptography," a security system that’s set up by someone lacking the expertise to do so. In recent years some companies have begun selling off-the-shelf encryption toolkits. These can be more secure, says Fu, but many are "just smoke and mirrors."

Unless a security system has "open design," meaning how it works is public information, it probably isn’t worth much, says Fu. The best log-in methods don’t employ cookies, but use what’s known as client certificates in SSL or "secure socket layer." These are akin to a signet ring, says Fu. The user authenticates who they are by stamping the wax with their seal. They never actually send the ring itself to the site--which is what cookies do. These systems are often used at universities, allowing students to access grades online, for example.

Why aren’t client certificates used elsewhere? They are cumbersome, says Fu, and retailers want to offer quick, easy shopping. Cookies get the most sales in the shortest time, and if no one is attacking, they work just fine. Being able to order something quickly provides short-term fulfillment, and the long-term cost to privacy isn’t very tangible.

There are steps that companies can take to prevent attackers from breaking their authentication schemes, says Fu. Prohibiting guessable passwords, for example, or only using temporary cookies that expire when the user exits the browser. A cryptographic system with a public protocol that can be reviewed for flaws will likely be more secure than a system with a private one.

Fu does shop online. "There isn’t much of an alternative for consumers. Even if you shop by phone, the attendant often enters your data on the same Web page you are trying to avoid," he says. A CEO, a doctor or someone with access to the records of others should especially care about secure log-ins.

"There’s a lot of legacy to this, too," he adds, "The set-up is too entrenched at this point--too many hours and too much money would be required to change things. But the company that figures out how to do so will be very successful."

Kevin Fu | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.cs.umass.edu

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht Ultra-precise chip-scale sensor detects unprecedentedly small changes at the nanoscale
18.01.2017 | The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

nachricht Data analysis optimizes cyber-physical systems in telecommunications and building automation
18.01.2017 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Algorithmen und Wissenschaftliches Rechnen SCAI

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Traffic jam in empty space

New success for Konstanz physicists in studying the quantum vacuum

An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

Im Focus: Designing Architecture with Solar Building Envelopes

Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.

As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Sustainable Water use in Agriculture in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

19.01.2017 | Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Helmholtz International Fellow Award for Sarah Amalia Teichmann

20.01.2017 | Awards Funding

An innovative high-performance material: biofibers made from green lacewing silk

20.01.2017 | Materials Sciences

Ion treatments for cardiac arrhythmia — Non-invasive alternative to catheter-based surgery

20.01.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>