What Is Phishing (Or, How to Fight Phishing at the User-Interface Level)
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As we showed earlier in the example of the eBay attack, we can separate an online interaction into four steps (Figure 5):

  • Message retrieval. An email message or web page arrives at the user's personal computer from the Internet.

  • Presentation. The message is displayed in the user interface, the user perceives it, and the user forms a mental model.

  • Action. Guided by the mental model, the user performs an action in the user interface, such as clicking a link or filling in a form.

  • System operation. The user's action is translated into system operations, such as connecting to a web server and submitting data.

In this section, we survey existing defenses against phishing attacks, classifying them according to which of these four steps they address.

figure 5
Figure 5. Four steps of human-Internet interaction

Message Retrieval

In an ideal world, the best defense against phishing would simply block all phishing communications from being shown to the user, by filtering them at message retrieval time. The essential requirement for this solution is that the computer alone must be able to accurately differentiate phishing messages from legitimate ones. Defenses that filter at message retrieval depend on message properties that are easily understood by a computer.

Identity of the sender

One of these properties is the identity of the sender. Black listing is widely used to block potentially dangerous or unwelcome messages, such as spam. If the sender's IP address is found in a black list, the incoming message can be categorized as spam or even simply rejected without informing the user. A black list may be managed by an individual user, the approach taken by Internet Explorer's Content Advisor (Figure 6). Alternatively, it may be managed by an organization or by collaboration among many users. For phishing, the EarthLink Toolbar alerts the user about web pages that are found on a black list of known fraudulent sites. [8]

figure 6
Figure 6. Internet Explorer's Content Advisor

Black listing is unlikely to be an effective defense on today's Internet, because it is so easy to generate new identities such as new email addresses and new domain names. Even new IP addresses are cheap and easy to obtain. The black list must be updated constantly to warn users about dangerous messages from newly created sources. Because phishing sites exist for only a short time, the black list must be updated within hours or minutes in order to be effective at blocking the attack.

The converse of black listing is white listing, allowing users to see messages only from a list of acceptable sources. For example, Secure Browser controls where users may browse on the Internet using a list of permitted URLs. [9] White listing avoids the new-identity problem because newly created sources are initially marked as unacceptable. But defining the white list is a serious problem. Because it is impossible to predict where a user might need to browse, a predefined, fixed white list invariably blocks users from accessing legitimate web sites. On the other hand, a dynamic white list that needs the user's involvement puts a burden on users because, for every site they want to visit, they must first decide whether to put it in the white list. This also creates vulnerability: if a phishing site can convince users to submit sensitive data to it, it may also be able to convince them to put it into a white list.

Textual content of the message

Another property amenable to message filtering is the textual content of the message. This kind of content analysis is used widely in antispam and antivirus solutions. Dangerous messages are detected by searching for well-known patterns, such as spam keywords and virus code signatures. In order to beat content analysis, an attacker can tweak the content to bypass the well-known filtering rules. For example, encryption and compression are added to existing viruses in order to bypass antivirus scans. [10] Random characters are inserted into spam emails to enable them to bypass spam filters. One sophisticated phishing attack used images to display text messages so that they would defeat content analysis. [11]

Spam filtering is one defense that applies at message retrieval time. Because nearly all phishing attacks are currently launched by spam, getting spam under control may reduce the risk of phishing attacks significantly. Unfortunately, the techniques used by many spam filters, which scan for keywords in the message content to distinguish spam from legitimate mail, are insufficient for classifying phishing attacks, because phishing messages are designed expressly to mimic legitimate mail from organizations with which the user already has a relationship. Even if spam filters manage to reduce the spam problem substantially, we can anticipate that phishing will move to other transmission vectors, such as anonymous comments on discussion web sites, or narrowly targeted email attacks rather than broadcast spam.

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