PayPal Plans To Block Older, Unsafe Browsers

As the number-one target of phishing scams, PayPal is making a bold move: blocking old and insecure browsers from its site. PayPal now supports only the use of Extended Validation SSL Certificates, which highlight the address bar in green when users are on a legitimate site. But how and if PayPal acts on this initiative will be interesting to see.

The name PayPal is almost synonymous with phishing scams. According to anti-phishing service PhishTank statistics from last year, PayPal was the number-one target of scams -- more than twice as often as PayPal's parent, eBay, the second most popular target.

On Friday, PayPal announced it was taking an unusual step to combat phishing abuse: blocking old and insecure browsers from its site. It is "an alarming fact that there is a significant set of users who use very old and vulnerable browsers, such as Internet Explorer 4," the company said.

PayPal now supports only the use of Extended Validation SSL Certificates. Browsers that support the technology highlight the address bar in green when users are on a legitimate site. The latest version of Microsoft  Internet Explorer supports EV SSL certificates. Firefox 2 supports them with an add-on, but Apple's Safari browser doesn't.

Protecting Consumers and Vendors

"By displaying the green glow and company name, these newer browsers make it much easier for users to determine whether or not they're on the site they thought they were visiting," said PayPal.

"While refusing to do business with people who don't use one of these browsers may seem disruptive," said Andrew Storms, director of security  operations at nCircle Network Security, "it is actually a rather old technique used by software vendors." Just as software vendors specify approved and required components, "providers of services not only protect their bottom line by making such demands, but also in the long run protect the consumer," Storms explained.

The problem is that it's relatively easy to impersonate browsers. "Exactly how and if PayPal attempts to act on this initiative will be interesting. Apple's iTunes Store is in essentially the same situation. If someone wants to use the iTunes Store, they need to use iTunes. So far, that limitation hasn't seemed to limit Apple's revenues," Storms noted.

Up Next: Single-Site Browser

The next major step in providing security -- both for the consumer and the provider -- will be single-site browsers, Storms said. "This will be a Web browser, like client software, that can do nothing but be used for a single Web site."

"Think of this as a traditional client/server  application. If you need to use your financial system, you launch browser X; then, if you need to use the enterprise resource-planning system, the user launches browser Y." While this might seem like a huge step backward in user productivity and IT management, in the future we might still use a single browser that "locks all network traffic into a single known and trusted site one at a time," Storms said.

Under this scenario, a user would need to log off and switch between different systems. "All the while, the browser ensures no errant information gets transmitted to any other system," Storms said.

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