Can reputation save you from online threats?

Reputation is everything in business. A single blemish, a negative report, or a poor review of a product, could bring a company to its knees, affect sales and send a negative message to investors or consumers.

Reputation and trust go hand in hand, but from a security perspective this is not always a good thing – particularly when browsing the web.

In a real-life situation, reputation and trust in a brand, product or service – bar some major mishap – don’t change that much. If a hotel is good, in most cases it remains so. If I like a particular brand of clothing, its reputation is usually sound.

Yet, when I go online, how does my level of trust in something and its reputation affect my security?

Let’s say that I like reading a particular online blog. One day the site is hacked and infected with malicious code. The next time I visit that site, there is an increased risk that my machine will be infected as well (especially if I don’t have antivirus installed). Six months down the line, is it still safe to visit that site again?

Now take this example and put it in the context of a busy work environment where employees ‘enjoy’ access to the internet throughout the day. Each employee has his or her favorite websites – most of them innocuous and posing little legal threat to the company.

With such a widespread increase in malicious, fraudulent, phishing and scamming sites appearing daily, what guarantees does the IT administrator have that one of the employees will not visit a website that has been compromised and infected by malware?

The employee in question had not visited the site for some time and two months earlier it had hijacked by scammers to push malware to unsuspecting readers. The next time that employee visits the site… oops!

So, how can administrators address this problem? How can they proactively prevent employees from visiting sites that could at some point have been compromised, thus putting the network at risk?

The solution is to filter those sites using web reputation. In a similar way that you would choose a hotel or a service on the basis of its reputation among peers or the public, the web reputation approach gives ratings to websites based on a current and future risk analysis.

Depending on the risk factor, websites are either blocked, classified as suspicious or allowed. This gives administrators the edge over traditional approaches such as Site Categorization. Just because ‘News’ sites typically are not a security risk, that doesn’t mean that they may not be the target of scammers or malware creators.

So judging risk on the basis of category alone is not enough. Yet if each website is ranked according to its risk factor and this, in turn, defines what action should be taken, online browsing safety increases considerably.

Website Reputation Index provides a “safeness” rating for websites based on their current and future threat profiles. Administrators can implement flexible Internet access policies by blocking sites based on the risks they pose, rather than preventing access to entire categories of websites, and employees can make smarter decisions about visiting websites with which they are not familiar – and even those they are.

Something certainly worth exploring if web filtering and security are key issues for your organization and your sanity as an administrator!

David Kelleher is Communications and Research Analyst at GFI Software.