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Vulnerabilities / Threats

Security Audit Shows Gains, Though Privacy Lags

The 2018 Online Trust Audit shows that "encryption everywhere" is improving security, while fuzzy language is slowing privacy gains.

Many organizations talk about website security, but how many live up to the talk? That's the question the Internet Society's Online Trust Alliance (OTA) sought to answer with its annual "Online Trust Audit & Honor Role," which examined more than 1,200 websites to measure their implementation of best practices in three areas: consumer protection (DNS, domain, and brand protection); site, server, application, and infrastructure security; and privacy, transparency, and disclosures.

This marks the 10th year of the comprehensive audit.

"Every year we adjust, looking for the latest best practices that are practical and reasonable for companies of most sizes," says Jeff Wilbur, technical director of the Online Trust Initiative for The Internet Society. The changing perspective on best practices is important, he says, "especially these days with cloud services, where you can get pretty sophisticated things even if you're a small organization."

The good news is that 70% of the websites analyzed this year scored high enough to qualify for the honor roll, up from 54% in the 2017 audit. "Overall, the two big things that jumped out were [best practices around] email authentication and end-to-end encryption of the entire Web session," Wilbur says. About 40% more companies are encrypting their entire Web sessions this year compared with last year, he adds, and that increase accounts for much of the improvement.

According to the report, 93% of sites encrypt all Web sessions. Certain industries made even more dramatic improvements. US government sites were the best-performing of all market segments, with 91% of audited sites making the honor roll. This is up from a fifth place performance in 2017. Consumer sites came in second, with 85% of audited sites making the honor roll. The category came in first place in the 2017 audit, but high breach rates—34% of audited sites reported a breach during the year—prevented a repeat performance.

Federal government sites also scored very well for email protection, with DMARC adoption shown for 93% of sites. This is a critical measure of security, the OTA says, because business email compromise (BEC) remains the leading source of malware infection in organizations of all sorts.

The lowest-performing market segment was also the newest in the audit: Healthcare found only 57% of its audited sites making the honor roll.

Improvements in security were not matched by improvements in privacy, Wilbur says, and that's disappointing. Much of that disconnect can be laid at the doorstep of online advertising. "Sharing your data so that someone can advertise to you — depending on individuals, they may or may not have an issue with that," he says. The problem, he says, language on websites about privacy and how the individual data will be used is "fuzzy enough and vague enough that we think it needs to be clearer and properly set consumer expectations."   

But both the overall status and trends are quite good, Wilbur says, and future audits will help organizations continue to improve.

"We try to choose criteria that are practically implementable by organizations of any size. This can be used as kind of a guidebook for the right thing to do," he says.

Wilbur points out that one of the appendices is a checklist of the criteria an organization could take to a service provider or IT organization with questions about how every point could be answered. The goal, he says, is simple. "Hopefully, if we can get the word out that everyone should be able to do nearly all these things and that they're the right thing to do, we can help improve security and privacy overall, for everybody," Wilbur says.

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

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