Defeating Active Phishing Attacks for Web-Based Transactions

Defeating Active Phishing Attacks for Web-Based Transactions

Xin Luo (Virginia State University, USA) and Teik Guan Tan (Data Security Systems Solutions Pte Ltd, Singapore)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-210-7.ch011
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Till now, the best defense against phishing is the use of two-factor authentication systems. Yet this protection is short-lived and comparatively weak. The absence of a fool-proof solution against Man-inthe-Middle, or Active Phishing, attacks have resulted in an avalanche of security practitioners painting bleak scenarios where Active Phishing attacks cripple the growth of web-based transactional systems. Even with vigilant users and prudent applications, no solutions seem to have addressed the attacks comprehensively. In this chapter, the authors propose the new Two-factor Interlock Authentication Protocol (TIAP), adapted from the Interlock Protocol with two-factor authentication, which is able to defend successfully against Active Phishing attacks. They further scrutinize the TIAP by simulating a series of attacks against the protocol and demonstrate how each attack is defeated.
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The current wave of phishing attacks against Internet Banking and Transaction web sites is only the tip of the hacking iceberg in the field of information systems security. Yet, these relatively unsophisticated attacks have already catastrophically resulted in significant monetary loss and a major source of embarrassment to the financial institutions. This predicament has drawn increasing attention from both security researchers and practitioners. Early research has shed light on such tactical anti-phishing methods as having Internet service providers (ISPs) involved to close phishing websites and launching retaliatory services to proactively block phishing traffic. However, these approaches are time-consuming and expensive, and are even useless in countries that lack relevant anti-phishing regulations (Geer, 2005). While organizations are scrambling to deploy costly two-factor authentication solutions (i.e. having a one-time password in addition to a normal password) to cope with the problem, such remedies may just be short-lived as the hackers can easily deploy the more sophisticated active phishing attacks to thwart the security and the additional effort could cause consumers to avoid Internet banking (Geer, 2005).

Defined as attacks that use both social engineering and technical subterfuge to steal consumers’ personal identity data and financial account credentials (Goth, 2005), phishing incidents have gradually eroded consumer confidence in online banking (Geer, 2005) and further imposed immeasurable losses for corporations in terms of time and resources. In addition to public education, authentication such as one-time password technology may be successful at preventing off-line or Static Phishing attacks (Bellovin, 2004). While researchers have previously addressed the technological concerns of Static Phishing and proposed relevant solutions such as phishing webpage detection based on visual similarity (Liu et al., 2005), mail filtering method (Inomata et al., 2005) and XUL and JavaScript-based browser extensions (Kirda and Kruegel, 2005), the field of Active Phishing is still unexplored as the possibility of Active Phishing or on-line Man-in-the-Middle attacks has been troubling security practitioners and consultants (Schneier, 2005) for a while already. In general, Active Phishing can be defined as the use of a reverse proxy in the middle to dynamically access the actual site while phishing the user, thus giving the impression that the user is communicating with the correct site, while the hacker in the middle has actual control of the session and may modify the contents to achieve illegitimate gains.

Along with Herzberg’s argument that SSL/TLS is limited and weak for site impersonation and scam sites (Herzberg, 2004), we believe that the difficulty in preventing Active Phishing attacks for web-based transactions is due to the fact that the HTTP-over-SSL protocol is easily reverse-proxied. In fact, all SSL-VPN solutions exploit this reverse-proxy capability somewhat to support a seamless VPN tunnel between the browser through the SSL-VPN gateway to the backend application server. Hence, the SSL-VPN gateway is in fact functioning as a “good” man-in-the-middle to provide the VPN encryption functionality.

The problem is further acerbated by the inherent fact that the Client executable content (i.e. the HTML/Javascript in the browser) is actually downloaded from the Server. This means that the server with which the browser is communicating with has full control over whatever content is executed on the browser. Should the browser be communicating with a phishing server, there is no way that the actual server is able to bypass this problem.

The painted scenario is bleak. A security-conscious bank with a security-conscious user base does not guarantee that the Internet banking sessions between them are secure. Already, a case of active phishing has been reported (Kirk, 2005), and it is only a matter of time before the exploitation of the vulnerability becomes widespread.

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