Herding Vulnerable Cats

A Statistical Approach to Disentangle Joint Responsibility for Web Security in Shared Hosting

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Hosting providers play a key role in fighting web compromise, but their ability to prevent abuse is constrained by the security practices of their own customers. Shared hosting, offers a unique perspective since customers operate under restricted privileges and providers retain more control over configurations. We present the first empirical analysis of the distribution of web security features and software patching practices in shared hosting providers, the influence of providers on these security practices, and their impact on web compromise rates. We construct provider-level features on the global market for shared hosting -- containing 1,259 providers -- by gathering indicators from 442,684 domains. Exploratory factor analysis of 15 indicators identifies four main latent factors that capture security efforts: content security, webmaster security, web infrastructure security and web application security. We confirm, via a fixed-effect regression model, that providers exert significant influence over the latter two factors, which are both related to the software stack in their hosting environment. Finally, by means of GLM regression analysis of these factors on phishing and malware abuse, we show that the four security and software patching factors explain between 10% and 19% of the variance in abuse at providers, after controlling for size. For web-application security for instance, we found that when a provider moves from the bottom 10% to the best-performing 10%, it would experience 4 times fewer phishing incidents. We show that providers have influence over patch levels--even higher in the stack, where CMSes can run as client-side software--and that this influence is tied to a substantial reduction in abuse levels.