eBay's phishy old problem

We were wrong, but is eBay wronger?

So, while we agree there is a balance to be struck between security and functionality, we feel eBay has made the wrong decision and is exposing its users to an unacceptable degree of risk. The company, on the other hand, believes this is "not a huge concern or issue - it is miniscule". Ultimately, that is a matter of opinion, so we asked the opinion of a couple of industry experts in the field of security.

Robert Schifreen (security expert and author of Defeating the Hacker) said: "If eBay allows [these] tags within item descriptions, it would appear to me that they understand very little about the basic theory behind writing secure web-based applications.

"One of the golden rules is that you must strip out all html tags from user input, apart from a small subset containing any tags that you specifically want to allow (such as bold or italic text). Allowing users to publish their Javascript programs at will on eBay is asking for trouble, and linking to phishing sites is just the start of it.

"Claiming that it's not a problem because links to phishing sites are quickly removed is, frankly, beyond belief for a high-profile site such as eBay. They should know better."

Nigel Stanley, security practice leader at Bloor Research took no prisoners either. "eBay need a good kick up the backside for allowing such a vulnerability to persist on their site. The very nature of consumer auction sites means that many inexperienced and naïve users will be spending a lot of money on goods believing that they are safe and secure. If this was a two-bit outfit I may give them the benefit of the doubt, but eBay should know better."

So, it isn't just us then.

eBay's reply

We gave eBay the opportunity to reply to our concerns. This is what it said:

"Due to overwhelming demand from the eBay Community, we allow users to use active code in their listing. This enables them to use a number of tools which enhance the content of their listings. A small number of unscrupulous individuals have abused this opportunity to enter malicious code into their listings. In the rare instances where this occurs, it is typically detected by eBay and we've worked swiftly to remove them."

We can see the point, but we think the logic is weak. Of course users want better tools for producing more attractive listings. Whether it be software tools or fairground attractions, people always want bigger, better and faster. That's human nature. But they also have an expectation that the software/attraction will be safe and are justifiably upset when they find out it isn't.

As Jeff Goldblum says in The Lost World: Jurassic Park "Oooh! Ahhh! That's how it always starts. Then later there's running and screaming." ®

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