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Security shocker: 75% of US bank websites have flaws

Insecure by design

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The vast majority of US bank websites jeopardize the security of their online customers by including design flaws that expose passwords and are susceptible to tampering by attackers, researchers say.

In a paper titled "Analyzing Web sites for user-visible security design flaws," researchers from the University of Michigan found 75 percent of bank sites surveyed had at least one such design flaw. The report was presented Friday at the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security meeting at Carnegie Mellon University.

"To our surprise, design flaws that could compromise security were widespread and included some of the largest banks in the country," said Atul Prakash, a professor in the university's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who initiated the study. Doctoral students Laura Falk and Kevin Borders also participated.

The flaws aren't bugs, but rather features built into the design of the sites. They include:

  • Placing secure login boxes on insecure pages, i.e. pages that aren't protected by secure sockets layer. That allows passwords to be intercepted through man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • Putting contact information and security notices on insecure pages. This makes it easy for scammers to change addresses and phone numbers listed on the page.
  • Not making it clear when the website is redirecting customers to a page outside the bank's domain. As a result, customers don't know whether to trust the site.
  • Allowing inadequate user IDs and passwords. Sites frequently allowed email addresses as user IDs and didn't require strong passwords.
  • Emailing sensitive information. This included passwords and statements.

The report was based on the examination of websites for 214 financial institutions. The study was conducted in 2006, so it's possible the designs have been cleaned up. But we doubt it. ®

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