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Re: ACTION-232 OPEN Share results from his study once he has them

From: Serge Egelman <egelman@cs.cmu.edu>
Date: Thu, 26 Jul 2007 12:45:15 -0400
Message-ID: <46A8CF9B.7060600@cs.cmu.edu>
To: Web Security Context WG <public-wsc-wg@w3.org>

We conducted a study of active phishing indicators found in current web
browsers by simulating spear phishing attacks.  Active phishing
indicators differ from passive indicators in that they interrupt the
user's primary task, forcing a decision to be made.  Previous studies
(no doubt you've read the Shared Bookmarks, right?) have shown that
passive indicators often go unnoticed, and when they are noticed, are
untrusted because users place more trust in the look and feel of the
destination web page.  Both IE7 and Firefox 2 include active phishing

Participants came to our lab under the guise of an online shopping
study.  Purchases were made from Amazon and eBay using their own
information.  Upon the completion of a purchase, participants were sent
phishing message from these sites, and were told to check their email
accounts to make sure that their orders were confirmed.  Participants
were then observed interacting with the phishing websites.  Participants
were placed in one of four groups: 12 users of Firefox 2
(http://switchersblog.com/files/firefox-phishing-protection.png), 10
users of IE7 who were shown the passive warning
(http://www.itwriting.com/images/localphishing.gif), 10 users of IE7 who
were shown the active phishing warning
(http://www.billp.com/blog/images/ie7phishing.jpg), and a control group
(10 users) that was shown and phishing warnings.  The purpose of the
control group was to determine whether participants would enter personal
information in the absence of a warning.

Of the 42 participants, all but two individuals (one in the control
group, one in the active IE7 group) clicked at least one of the phishing
URLs.  The 9 participants in the control group who clicked the URLs all
entered login information at the phishing sites.  9 participants in the
passive IE7 group entered login information (1 participant obeyed the
warnings).  Participants ignored the passive warnings for two reasons:
habituation with popup messages, and lack of choices in the dialog (some
participants read the warnings, but since there were no options, they
were unsure of what to do, and thus dismissed the warnings and
proceeded).  Additionally, some participants were so focused on the
primary task (entering login information on the phishing websites) that
they did not notice the warnings appear in the first place.

Among those shown the active warnings, all of the Firefox users obeyed
the warnings.  In the active IE7 warning group, all but two participants
obeyed the warnings, however there was no statistically significant
difference between these two groups.  Of the two who ignored the
warnings, one blamed habituation, and the other was fooled by the
message coinciding with the purchase.  This both shows that the IE7
warning is designed too similar to other warnings in IE (e.g. the 404
page), and that there will always be some users who fall for phishing
attacks, regardless of the strength of the warnings.

Overall, the active warnings were effective because they interrupted the
users' primary tasks ("attention switch") and they forced the users to
make a choice in order to dismiss them ("attention maintenance").  These
properties were lacking in the passive indicators.  Additionally, when
visiting the eBay site, users were shown the EV certificate indicator
(i.e. the green address bar) in IE7.  None of the 42 users noticed the
green address bar, much less the absence of it when visiting the
phishing sites.  Thus, it is unreasonable to expect users to be warned
by the absence of an indicator.

We also found that prior experiences with phishing had zero correlation
with falling for a phishing attack in our study.  One third of the
participants claimed to have either fallen for a phishing attack, had
credentials stolen, or been the victim of credit fraud in the past.
These individuals were equally as likely to both click on the URLs and
ignore the warnings as other participants.  Additionally, participants
who could define the term "phishing" were not anymore likely to obey (or
ignore) the warnings than participants who could not.  Finally, when
asked how they believed the phishing messages got to them, participants
could not answer.  They understood the websites were fraudulent, however
they still trusted the email messages.  This shows that there is a huge
disconnect with users' mental models of phishing.

Overall we concluded that warnings within the phishing context need to
interrupt the user's primary task to be effective.  These warnings must
present clear recommendations on how to proceed.  To prevent
habituation, these warnings should be designed differently than dialogs
and need to be presented rarely (i.e. only when there's a high
probability of immediate danger).  Finally, warnings about high risks
need to fail safely, for when users do become habituated.  One
participant in this study who was exposed to the active IE7 warning did
not read it (or the options it presented), and thus clicked the red 'X'
in the corner to dismiss it (thus closing the browser window).  She went
back to the original email, clicked the link again, and again closed the
window.  She repeated this process five times before finally giving up,
and was thus prevented from giving away information to the phishing
website despite the fact that she never read any part of the warning.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask.  I'm still working on the


Serge Egelman

PhD Candidate
Vice President for External Affairs, Graduate Student Assembly
Carnegie Mellon University

Legislative Concerns Chair
National Association of Graduate-Professional Students
Received on Thursday, 26 July 2007 16:45:37 UTC

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