Web Links at Risk: Unseen Dangers of Online Vulnerabilities

In a groundbreaking revelation, recent research has unveiled a massive cybersecurity threat that has been hiding in plain sight: hijackable hyperlinks. These seemingly innocuous clickable links, ubiquitous across millions of websites, including those of major corporations, religious organizations, financial institutions, and even governmental entities, can be redirected to malicious destinations without triggering any alarms. The findings, highlighted in a paper presented at the 2024 Web Conference, reveal how these vulnerabilities can be exploited on a scale far greater than previously imagined.

Hijackable hyperlinks present a significant risk to web users, as they can lead to a myriad of cyber threats, including phishing sites, malicious scripts, misinformation, offensive content, and viruses. The implications of these threats are substantial, posing potential risks such as identity theft, account compromise, and financial loss. This article explores the nature of hijackable hyperlinks, the extent of the problem, and the measures that can be taken to mitigate these risks.

Hijackable hyperlinks occur when clickable links on websites are redirected to malicious destinations. This can transpire due to typographical errors in web addresses or when programmers use placeholder domains that are not subsequently updated. For instance, a programmer might inadvertently link to “tehconversation.com” instead of “theconversation.com.” If the mistyped domain has never been purchased, a malicious actor can acquire it for a nominal fee and hijack the inbound traffic. Consequently, such links can lead unsuspecting users to phishing sites that mimic legitimate websites to steal personal information, or to sites laden with malicious scripts, misinformation, offensive content, and other cyber threats.

The scale of this problem is immense. Utilizing high-performance computing clusters, researchers processed the entire browsable web to identify these vulnerabilities, analyzing data equivalent to over 10,000 hard drives. This exhaustive study uncovered more than 572,000 phantom domains—hijackable hyperlinks found on numerous trusted websites, including those designed to enforce privacy legislation. The majority of these vulnerabilities stemmed from typographical errors in hyperlinks. However, another significant source of vulnerabilities was identified: placeholder domains. Programmers often use links to phantom domains during the development phase, with the expectation that these links will be updated later. This practice, common with website design templates where aesthetic components are purchased from external sources, often results in links that remain hijackable when the design template is installed on a website.

To assess the exploitability of hijackable hyperlinks, researchers purchased 51 of the phantom domains identified and passively observed the inbound traffic. The findings were alarming: 88% of the purchased phantom domains received more traffic than similar new domains without hijacked links, with some attracting up to ten times more visitors. This starkly demonstrates the potential reach and impact of hijackable links, underscoring the urgency of addressing this cybersecurity threat.

Mitigating the risks posed by hijackable hyperlinks requires a multifaceted approach. For average web users, awareness is paramount. It is crucial to exercise vigilance and double-check web addresses before clicking on links, particularly when entering sensitive information. For those responsible for maintaining company websites, several technical countermeasures can be employed. One of the simplest solutions is to use free tools available online to “crawl” websites for broken links. Identifying and fixing these broken links before they are hijacked can significantly reduce the risk.

The World Wide Web, first proposed by British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989, has evolved into the primary information exchange medium of the modern age. Despite its profound impact, the initial design of the web did not prioritize security. As our reliance on the web continues to grow, it is imperative to elevate web data security from a non-requirement to a critical requirement. Addressing the security challenges posed by hijackable hyperlinks is essential to safeguarding our information and maintaining trust in the digital ecosystem.

By raising awareness and implementing technical countermeasures, we can protect ourselves and our data from the lurking cybersecurity threats that hijackable hyperlinks represent. As the web remains an integral component of our daily lives, it is vital to ensure its security and integrity, thereby preserving its role as a trusted platform for information exchange.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article by Kevin Saric, Computer Scientist & Mechatronic Engineer, CSIRO.

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