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Anti-Phishing Feature in Beta Version of Google Chrome Poses Security Risks: Researchers

The new anti-phishing feature currently being tested in the experimental version of Google Chrome does not work as well as intended and poses security risks, researchers from PhishMe warned this week.

Google is experimenting with the "origin chip" feature, which replaces a full URL in Chrome's location bar with a shorter string which highlighting the main domain name. The information won't be entirely gone, as the user can still find the page's exact location by selecting the bar to reveal the full URL. Origin chip would help users distinguish spoofed or fake domains from legitimate sites.

It is currently in Chrome Canary, the build version of Chrome where new features are tested and tweaked. The anti-phishing tool has to be manually turned on by going to "chrome://flags/" to open the menu of experimental features.

The problem with the origin chip has to do with the fact the transformation makes it difficult  for "even security savvy users who have been trained to recognize malicious URLs" to recognize bad links, said Aaron Higbee, CTO of PhishMe, and Shyaam Sundhar, a senior researcher at the company. If the URL is long enough, Canary just displays an empty box, not the transformed URL with the highlighted domain. Considering that looking at the URL is one of the ways users identify a site as being potentially malicious, hiding the URL entirely makes it harder to differentiate legitimate websites from malicious ones, they said.

“This creates a golden opportunity for attackers to carry out data-entry phishing attacks,” the PhishMe researchers wrote in a blog post. “Without the ability to evaluate the URL, even the savviest user could fall victim to this type of attack."

From PhishMe's research, it appears Canary can handle URLs that are 30 to 70 characters long and modify them as designed. However, a URL of 110 to 120 characters resulted in an empty Omnibox—Google's name for the combination location bar and search box. The problem is compounded by the fact the character limit changes depending on the size of the browser window. Smaller browser windows will fall back to the empty location box for URLs less than 90 characters, for example.

"If the character length goes beyond 98 characters the Origin Chip will not display any URL," they wrote.

The origin chip itself is not a new concept. Apple introduced a similar feature in Safari on iOS 7. It's also important to remember that the origin chip is not yet in the main version of the browser. The experimental build is intended for researcher and developer use.

One solution may be to keep the whole URL intact and change the way the domain is displayed, the PhishMe team suggested. Chrome currently grays out the entire URL with the exception of subdomain and domain name. It may be better to focus on making certain parts of the URL visually more obvious.

"Merely extending the length of the URLs it will display isn't a solution, because attackers will just make URLs as long as they need to be to avoid being displayed," Higbee and Sundhar said.

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Fahmida Y. Rashid is a Senior Contributing Writer for SecurityWeek. She has experience writing and reviewing security, core Internet infrastructure, open source, networking, and storage. Before setting out her journalism shingle, she spent nine years as a help-desk technician, software and Web application developer, network administrator, and technology consultant.
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