Google’s New Security Warning Is Terrifying Many Users

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I’ve been getting email from people all over the world who are suddenly scared of accessing particular websites that they’ve routinely used. It was quickly obvious what is going on — the first clue was that they were all users running Chrome Beta. 

The problem: Google’s new “Not Secure” warning on sites not using https security is terrifying many people. Users are incorrectly (but understandably) interpreting “Not Secure” to mean “Dangerous and Hacked! Close this page now!”

And this is squarely Google’s fault.

Years ago, I predicted this outcome. 

Though I’ve long promoted the migration to secure Web connections via https, I’ve also repeatedly warned that there are vast numbers of widely referenced sites that provide enormous amounts of important information to users, often from archives and systems that have been running for many, many years — sometimes since before the beginnings of Google 20 years ago.

The vast majority of these sites don’t require login. They don’t request information from users. They are utterly read-only.

While non-encrypted connections to them are theoretically subject to man-in-the-middle attacks, the real world likelihood of their being subjected to such attacks is extraordinarily low.

Another common factor with many of these sites is that they are operating on a shoestring, often on donated resources, without the expertise, money, or time to convert to https. Many of these systems are running very old code, conversion of which to support https would be a major effort — even if someone were available to do the work.

Despite ongoing efforts by “Let’s Encrypt” and others to provide tools to help automate the transition to https, the reality is that it’s still usually a massive amount of work requiring serious expertise, for all but the smallest and simplest of sites — and even that’s for sites running relatively current code.

Let’s be utterly clear about this. “Not Secure” does not mean that a site is actually hacked or dangerous in any way, nor that its data has been tampered with in transit. 

But to many users — not all of whom are well versed on the fine points of Internet security, eh? — that kind of warning displayed in that manner is a guarantee of more unnecessary confusion and angst among large categories of users, many of whom are already feeling disadvantaged by other aspects of the Web, such as Google’s continuing accessibility failures in terms of readability and other user interface aspects, disproportionately affecting these growing classes of users.

With Google about to promote their “Not Secure” warning from Google Beta to the standard Google Stable that most people run, these problems are about to grow by orders of magnitude.

Through their specific interface design decisions in this regard, Google is imposing an uncompensated cost on many sites with extremely limited resources, a cost that could effectively kill them.

Might doesn’t always make right, and Google needs to rethink the details of this particular approach.

–Lauren–