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Trust on the Internet

The extent to which a user trusts a website has the potential to color many aspects our lives. It can influence whether we believe a trivial fact, what medicine we seek, where we sign up for driving school, to whom we give our credit card information, and so on. As we surf the web, we are constantly evaluating the websites we see and deciding how reliable they are. We look for clean user interfaces, the lock icon that indicates encryption, and names we recognize. As users, there are many tools at our disposal to help us decide whom to trust.

For instance, trust often relies on subtle interface cues. A 2004 study of patientsí evaluation of medical websites found that certain UI elements had a dramatic effect on the perception of the trustworthiness. Over 94% of reasons cited for mistrust included UI features such as pop-up ads. Many popular websites use systems that allow the users themselves to control the reputations of other users. Users also rely on technical cues, such as the lock icon in the browser address bar, which indicates a secure connection.

These skills, however, are a double-edged sword. Online, we are all potential victims of charlatans, quacks, and identity thieves. These attackers have the same tools for building trust that legitimate sites have. We have trained ourselves to trust certain online sellers and banks based on many cues that can be abused. Trustworthy and untrustworthy entities alike can use professional-looking website design to promote user trust. The lock icon does not necessarily imply trustworthiness, because SSL certificates are extremely easy to obtain. Reputation systems can fool users or give them a false sense of security. Malicious sites often exploit this misplaced trust to lure unsuspecting users into providing sensitive information.

Through explanations and examples, we aim to show both how to trust is established on the Internet and how to decide which websites to trust.