Monday, December 19, 2005

Profiling: A New Approach to Desktop Security

Speaking of the limits of rationality, often it is ignorance, not brain structure, that impairs the quality of our decisions. Sometimes we simply need to get a little expert help. That's why Bessemer (led by Rob Stavis of Skype fame) incubated and funded SiteAdvisor, a security startup with a fundamentally new approach to defending the flock of internet users from hungry predators...

A flawed premise characterizes the plethora of internet security technologies--a mismatch that fuels the growing scourges of spam, phishing and exploits. The flawed premise is that Users will be secure if they have the data to decide for themselves whom to trust.

Thanks to this superficially compelling idea, we have applet signatures, SSL certificates, 30 page online license agreements, and pop-up warnings when we are "about to enter an insecure website." Do any of you really stop what you're doing because of obscure language in an online license agreement, or because a pop-up window alerts you that an SSL certificate has expired? We all know what really happens, with the inevitable consequence that we are spammed, phished and exploited.

The idea that more information protects us springs from early technologies like PGP that relied on a rudimentary social network to convey trust. For a small community of 10,000 programmers who actually understood the details of public key encryption, PGP worked well. But for a billion internet users bombarded with technical jargon, too much information annoys far more than it defends. Sometimes fewer options are better (see prior post on the negative value of options when decision-making is sub-optimal).

SiteAdvisor tackles the problem of internet security by offering expert recommendations while you surf. For example, maybe you don't really want this Google search result, because that web site links to a lot of malicious sites (see icons added to the search results on the right). Er, are you sure you want to enter your real email address in this form? If you do you should, based on our tests, expect 254 emails per week in your inbox (see second screenshot)...

In a sense, SiteAdvisor extends the functionality of Websense, going far beyond content analysis. For example, SiteAdvisor's software analyzes the impact on your desktop from downloaded code, the security of pages referenced by hyperilnks, and the number of messages you should expect from sharing your email address. You can read a comprehensive review of SiteAdvisor in an article published today by Ben Edelman at Harvard titled "Deciding Who [sic] To Trust". Screenshots that illustrate the depth of SiteAdvisor's analysis are available here.

Profiling may be a dirty word in US airports, but it is widely hailed as an effective--and even critical--security mechanism. SiteAdvisor elevates reputational internet profiling to a higher level by encompassing all the elements of a web site--not just the public key, URL, IP address, or applet cert.

Personally, I will feel much freer to explore the back alleys of the net with a bodyguard watching my back.

Update: A preview version is now available here using the login "websafety" and a blank password.


  1. Been using site advisor for months now thanks to David's intro to the company. Performance is great and they recently added Yahoo support. I currently run it on both Flock and Firefox and am amazed by how many sites have already been analyzed by these folks. Try it out, it's free.

  2. Just thought I'd let you know that the SiteAdvisor link doesn't work.

  3. Anonymous1:28 PM

    Maybe you should try SpyWall. It will protect you
    while you surf the web.

    I think you will feel much freer to explore the back
    alleys of the net when you know that it can deflect
    the attacks instead of just telling you that the
    alley is dangerous.