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How to test the security of personal details submitted to a website

Before I offer up personal details to a website, is there a way to test how protected and secure my information will be?

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Before offering up personal details to a site, there are a number of things to look for that will help you perform a quick risk assessment. Keep in mind that you will not find any iron-clad guarantees of protection, and there are no conclusive tests that you, as a website visitor, can perform.

To consider this aspect of website risk, think about the way things work in the world of bricks and mortar. Is there a practical way to test how protected and secure your personal information will be when you offer it up to a real-world entity, like the great little sushi restaurant where you used your credit card last night? Chances are if you've been going there once a month for several years and your personal credit details have remained secure, one would think there's probably nothing to worry about. But suppose the owner has a lapse in judgment when hiring a new waiter who turns out to be crooked?

When deciding to share our personal details in the real world, we take a calculated risk based on a variety of factors. To minimize our risk on the Web, we need to know what factors to watch for. To this end, a number of organizations have sought to provide certifications, seals and other signs of safety. For example, there's the VeriSign Secured Seal. But what does the seal tell you? Here is what Verisign says to site owners: "After securing your website with a VeriSign SSL Certificate, simply download the seal and install it. Customers not only see the trust mark, they can click the seal and verify your site in real time."

So, simply seeing the sign does not mean much. You have to click it to make sure the site has the SSL certificate properly installed. When you submit information to the site, it may be encrypted, but VeriSign does not check each submission to make sure it is protected. Furthermore, the site could be storing unencrypted personal details on a publicly exposed server. In the case of credit card data, this would be a violation of the Payment Card Industry (PCI) data security standard.

VeriSign has introduced Extended Validation (EV) SSL Certificates that offer greater investigation of the entity making a request, and there are seals like McAfee Inc.'s "Hacker Safe" certification mark that can only be displayed if a site has been tested. But ironically, these seals won't be found at some banking and bill-paying sites, like Bank of America, Citibank, and Verizon. Really big companies tend to think that their name is reason enough to trust them. Go to a small regional bank, however, and you are likely to see plenty of seals and certificates.

What you should see at any site where you are about to submit personal information is a closed padlock in the status bar, or address bar, of your browser. The lock strongly suggests that the data submitted will be encrypted as it passes over the Internet. What happens after that depends on the recipient's security practices, and that is something on which you are going to have to take a chance.

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This was first published in May 2008

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