Alert! Study finds Internet users heed browser warnings

Warnings are better designed now, which has led to users paying more attention

Security warnings displayed by Web browsers are far more effective at deterring risky Internet behavior than was previously believed, according to a new study.

The study looked at how users reacted to warnings displayed by Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome browsers, which warn of phishing attempts, malware attacks and invalid SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates.

It was widely thought that most users ignored the warnings, based on several studies released between 2002 and 2009. However, in the past four years, browser warnings have been redesigned, but the effect of the new designs on users had not been studied.

For example, toolbars that warned of possible phishing attacks have been replaced with full-page warnings that may have influenced people's behavior, the researchers who conducted the study wrote.

More than 25 million warning impressions displayed by Chrome and Firefox in May and June were analyzed. The data was collected from telemetry programs used by Mozilla and Google, which collect what the researchers term 'pseudonymous' data from the browsers of consenting users.

In the case of both browsers, less than 25 percent of users opted to bypass malware and phishing warnings, and only a third of users cruised through the SSL warnings displayed by Firefox.

"This demonstrates that security warnings can be effective in practice; security experts and system architects should not dismiss the goal of communicating security information to end users," according to the paper, which was submitted to the Usenix Annual Technical Conference 2013 in San Jose, California, late last month.

The analysis uncovered other interesting details. It appears that more technical users bypassed security warnings more often. The researchers considered technical users as those who used Linux and pre-release browsers.

"Technically advanced users might feel more confident in the security of their computers, be more curious about blocked websites or feel patronized by warnings," the paper said.

Despite the positive influence of the warnings, the researchers found users clicked through more than 70 percent of Google's SSL warnings. By contrast, Firefox users clicked through them just 33 percent of the time.

There are a few thoughts why Chrome's SSL click-through rate is higher. Users can bypass Chrome's warning with a single click, whereas Firefox requires three clicks. Firefox displays a more stern warning, showing an image of a policeman and using the word "untrusted" to describe the site.

There may also be other mitigating factors, the researchers said. Nevertheless, Chrome's high SSL click-through rate "is undesirable," they wrote. "Our positive findings for the other warnings demonstrate that this warning has the potential for improvement."

The study was written by Devdatta Akhawe of the University of California, Berkeley, and Adrienne Porter Felt, a research scientist at Google.

Send news tips and comments to Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Googlesecuritymozilla

More about GoogleLinuxMozilla

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Jeremy Kirk

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts