October 20, 2018

How have In-Flight Web Page Modification Practices Changed over the Past Ten Years?

When we browse the web, there are many parties and organizations that can see which websites we visit, because they sit on the path between web clients (our computers and mobile devices), and the web servers hosting the sites we request. Most obviously, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are responsible for transmitting our web traffic, but reports (e.g. [1], [2], [3]) have shown that they may also inject ads into users’ requested web pages to increase revenue. Other parties may also intercept our web traffic for a wide variety of reasons: content-distribution networks (or CDNs) receive requests for websites that are geographically farther away to speed up response time, enterprise software and programs running on our devices may check incoming websites for added security or privacy before passing the website to our browser, and malicious adversaries may attempt to inject malware into requested web content before we receive it.

 

In 2007, a research group at the University of Washington conducted a study to measure how often these web page modifications occur in practice, and to determine who is responsible for the modifications. Web page modifications were identified using a small piece of software embedded in a test web page, a so-called “web tripwire”, that compared a known good representation of the web page with the version of the test web page users saw in their browsers. The researchers then attributed the modifications to ISPs, malicious attackers, and client software such as ad blockers, using IP addresses and by finding identifying keywords in the injected web content. They found that only about 1.3% of participating web clients saw page modifications. But much about how we interact with and browse the web has changed over the past ten years. More specifically, with the emergence of mobile technologies and new network parties such as CDNs, it is important to learn if and how these new developments have affected in-flight modification practices.

 

We invite you to take part in our research study. Following the same setup as the UW study, we have created a test web page containing a “web tripwire”. If it detects any in-flight page modifications in our test page, it sends us a copy of the modified version of our web page that your browser received. We minimize the information that we collect to detect page modifications. In addition to page modification data, we only record information that web servers normally record, such as IP address, browser type, date and time of page request, and a cookie to differentiate between users. We will permanently remove any personal information found in the page modifications before sending the modification data to our servers.

 

By participating in this study, you are helping us gather information crucial for guiding research and building tools to improve web privacy. If you’re willing to contribute to our study, it’s as simple as visiting our test web page: http://stormship.cs.princeton.edu. If possible, we also ask you to visit our page through multiple different devices and browsers, as this will help diversify our collected data. Our test page contains more details about our study, and we will post our results there when we have completed our measurements.

Please reach out to or with any questions, concerns, or feedback. We greatly appreciate your help in our efforts to improve web privacy!

Comments

  1. You test site appears not to work properly without JS enabled and permitted referrers to 4 sites. I suggest you detect these being blocked.

    • Hi TimH,

      Thanks for your feedback. We’ll look into these cases and see how we can handle them appropriately. We use a JS script to detect the modifications, so unfortunately there’s currently no way around needing JS.