Last month, eWeek reported that PayPal intends to block unsafe browsersfrom accessing their site. They’ve focused on phishing detection and support for Extended Validation SSL Certificates. So what are these features, and why does PayPal think they’re critical? And just which browsers are they likely to block?

Phishing protection has an obvious appeal for a site whose accounts are one of the biggest phishing targets on the web.  Opera 9.1 and up, Firefox 2, and Internet Explorer 7 check the websites they visit against lists of known fraudulent sites. These browsers will warn the users before they accidentally type their credentials into a bogus log-in form. While this makes no difference when a user is already on PayPal’s site, it does mean the user is less likely to get his or her password stolen, and thieves are less likely to carry out fraudulent transactions with the account.

Extended Validation or EV certificates are like normal SSL certificates: they encrypt your web activity to prevent eavesdropping. What makes them different is that EV certificates require the issuer to verify the site owner more thoroughly. Browsers with EV support will display an indication that the site has been verified, usually by turning part or all of the address bar green. This is intended to give the user greater confidence that the site is legit. EV certificates are currently supported by IE7 and development versions of Opera 9.50 and Firefox 3. (You can preview a version of Opera with EV support by downloading Opera 9.50 beta 2.)

(It’s worth noting that Opera 9.50 beta 2 is stricter about verifying EV certificates, and will not show PayPal with a green bar because it loads images and scripts from another site. More recent preview releases will, like IE7 and Firefox 3, be satisfied if the main page is EV and the resources are all protected by regular SSL.)

So which browsers might get turned away at the gate?

In a follow-up story, PayPal clarified that they have absolutely no intention of blocking current versions of any browsers, and that they would only block obsolete browsers on outdated or unsupported operating systems. So an Opera 9 user on Windows XP isn’t likely to get shut out of PayPal anytime soon. But a Windows 98 user might have cause for concern.

Browser detection is extremely tricky to get right, requiring frequent adjustments. It looks like PayPal intends to take the minimalist approach: Assume most browsers are capable of handling what you send them, and only block the problematic ones.

(Originally posted at Opera Watch as a follow-up to Blocking IE6)

Sorry for the lack of updates this past week. I was just way too busy prepping for our move this weekend.

A couple of interesting news bits I noticed when I got into work this morning:

It looks like I’ve been lucky with installing Windows XP Service Pack 3. I’ve had no problems with the one machine I installed it on. According to Information Week, a lot of people are having serious problems with SP3, including BSOD on AMD-based systems.

Also, NetCraft has a screenshot of a PayPal page with both the green bar of an Extended Validation (EV) SSL certificate and a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability. It’s a step or two beyond the standard lock icon, but there are still limits to what an EV cert can tell you. Unfortunately PayPal and others are really trying to drum “green bar = safe” into people’s heads.

Following up on the PayPal anti-phishing discussion of a few weeks ago, I see that PayPal is promoting a service called Iconix. You install the program on your system, and it looks at your inbox for messages that claim to be from one of its customers. It tries to verify them “using industry-standard authentication technologies such as Sender ID and DomainKeys.” Messages that pass get a lock-and-checkbox icon attached to the sender’s name, and in some cases the name is replaced by the sender’s logo.

On the tech side, it’s similar to SpamAssassin’s whitelist_from_spf and whitelist_from_dkim features. Both allow you to specify a sender to whitelist, and it will only give a message special treatment if it can verify the sender.

On the user-interface side, it’s similar to EC certificates, in that it tries to highlight a “good” class of messages rather than flag or filter out a “bad” class.

It’s not a bad idea, actually, and now that I’m surprised I haven’t seen something similar in other email clients. It’s sort of like setting up custom rings or images for images on your cell phone address book

They seem to be focused on webmail and Outlook so far, and only on Windows, but it looks like the perfect candidate for a Thunderbird extension. They do have a sign-up form to notify you when they add support for various programs and OSes, and I was pleased to see not only Thunderbird and Mac OS listed, but Linux as well. Too often, Linux gets forgotten in the shuffle to ensure compatibility with every Windows variation.

IE7On Thursday I stumbled across a campaign to Trash All IE Hacks. The idea is that people only stay on the ancient, buggy, feature-lacking, PITA web browser, Internet Explorer 6, because we web developers coddle them. We make the extra effort to work around those bugs, so they can actually use the sites without upgrading.

Well, yeah. That’s our job.

And a bunch of random websites blocking IE6 aren’t going to convince people to change. If I were to block IE6, or only allow Firefox, or only allow Opera, I’d have to have seriously compelling content to get people to switch. Mostly, people would get annoyed and move on. Who’s going to install a new browser just so they can read the history of the Flash? Or choose an ISP? Or buy a product that they can get from another site?

Slapping the User in the Face

It’s so easy for someone to walk away from your site. One of the tenets of good web design is to make the user jump through as few hoops as possible to accomplish whatever you want him/her to do. Every hoop you add is an obstacle. Too many obstacles, and they’ll just go somewhere else more convenient.

Back when I was following Spread Firefox, every once in a while someone would suggest blocking IE. Every time, people like me would shoot it down. Continue reading

Anyone whose email address is posted on a web site probably doesn’t bother to identify who sent them viruses anymore. With faked return addresses and the high probability that your only connection to the sender is the fact that they visited your web page sometime in the last month, there really isn’t much point.

Every once in a while, you’ll see something weird.

Today I received what looked like a classic credit-card theft scam: a notice supposedly from PayPal claiming that my account would be canceled unless I re-entered all my credit card information into the linked web page. Right. Normally I just report it to PayPal and delete it, but this one had an attachment instead of a link, and that attachment had been defanged. With a name like, it was pretty obviously a virus. Continue reading