Half of popular websites are at risk of malicious activity as they depend on a chain of other third parties to import external resources such as such as ad providers, tracking and analytics services and content distribution networks — which are often required to properly load content according to new research.

The research from CSIRO’s Data 61, The Chain of Implicit Trust: An Analysis of the Web Third-party Resources Loading, noted these third parties can further load resources from other domains creating a dependency chain of up to over 30 domains, underpinned by a form of implicit trust with the original website.

The research found that the larger the dependency chain, the greater the threat to malicious activity.

Dali Kaafar, information security and privacy research leader at Data61

Professor Dali Kaafar, information security and privacy research leader at Data61 said although this is a well-known web design decision, often overlooked are its implications on security and privacy.

He said, “Almost all websites today are heavily embedded with tracking components.

“For every website you visit, you could be unknowingly loading content from potentially malicious parties and leaving a trail of your internet activity.”

The research also found that 1.2 per cent of third parties linked to the top 200 thousand websites were suspicious.

According to Data61 Javascript represented the greatest risk of malicious activity as it is designed to be executed undetected.

Kaafar said, “The potential threat should not be underestimated, as suspicious content loaded on browsers can open the way to further exploits including Distributed Denial of Service attacks which disrupt traffic to websites, and ransomware campaigns which cost the world more than US$8 billion in 2018.

“Worryingly, the original or ‘first party’ websites have little to no visibility of where these resources originate.

“This points to a lack of ‘trustability’ of content on the web, and the need to better regulate the web by introducing standardised security measures and the notion of explicit trust.”

Resolving the security issue created by dependency chains will require additional research, the support of the World Wide Web Consortium, the predominant organisation focused on developing web standards, as well as web ‘hypergiants’.

Kaafar said users should install simple web browser extensions such as ad- and JavaScript-blockers to limit exposure to malicious activity through the web.

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