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Exploring Browser Web of Trust Use Cases

Intro

Brave is a software company with the goal of improving the web, frequently by seeking aggressive changes to current web practices. Currently these focus in the area of privacy preserving changes to the web, such as Web API modifications to restrict fingerprinting, alternate cookie policies to reduce tracking online, and web resource blocking to improve browsing performance.

Brave is also considering other modifications to the web that would improve our users' experience. Many of these focus on issues of trust and decentralized identity. Web of Trust, and the systems that can be built on top of web of trust, are promising, novel and interesting solutions to many of these issues.

This document presents several use cases Brave is considering using Web of Trust, or similar techniques, in the browser. Note that this document is not a product map for Brave Software, and it should not be understood to be indicating any particular problem, nor solution to a problem, that Brave will deploy in the future. Instead, this document reflects ongoing conversations between researchers, engineers and product managers at Brave, where we think it may be mutually beneficial to engage with the web of trust community.

Use Cases

Browser Extensions

The primary way browser extensions are distributed to users. Most commonly, they are distributed through a "web store", maintained by the browser vendor. Extension authors upload their extensions to the store, the browser vendor possibly provides some amount of vetting of the code to ensure the extension performs as expected, and makes it available to users.

This extension distribution technique has proven useful, but comes with significant downsides. First, it adds an additional location where the browser vendor stands between the user and the web they wish to experience. Second, it requires significant maintenance overhead (and, potentially, legal liability) on the part of the browser vendor, which may be unacceptable for small browser vendors. And third, it places the browser vendor in a position of "trust authorial" that it may be poorly equipped to handle (e.g. making statements about how a browser extension will behave on a large position of the web).

Steps such as allowing users to install extensions from outside the web store, creating user ranking systems within the web store, using static analysis tools to detect malicious extensions, and performing graph analyses on review systems to detect sybil attacks can be useful, but each carry with non-trivial costs and benefits that are well understood and beyond the scope of this paper to detail.

Web of trust may be a partial style solution to decentralized, trusted extension distribution. A plausible system might involve a WoT style weighted trust system for assessing of the worthiness of extensions. Such extensions could then be distributed in any number of ways, including directly through the extension owner's server, or out of the extension stores of other browser vendors. The browser vendor would only need to include tools in the browser to help users understand the WoT assigned trustworthiness scores, potentially contribute weights and votes back into the WoT, and a system for users establishing trust between other browser users.

Assisting Trusted Micropayments

The problems with current web funding systems are well known. Funding through advertising (as currently implemented) entails significant privacy violations and performance degradation. Subscription schemes require a significant (and sometimes prohibitive) step from users, and are generally only plausible to the largest media properties (e.g. a paywall strategy is feasible for the New York Times, but not The Village Voice). Crowdfunding schemes require significant overhead captured by the crowdfunding platform. And all the above are hampered by the well known problems of transaction fees; payments below a certain threshold are infusible, since the processing costs dwarf the exchanged amounts.

Crypto-currencies are a promising solution for avoiding transaction fees, but without a system of trust or identify, the usefulness of such systems is significantly diminished. If its cheap to send funds, but expensive to be confident who the funds are being sent to (possibly due to relying on a centralized identification service), then micropayments are still unfeasible in many cases.

Browser vendors could help users with such problems, by using WoT, and distributed identity systems built on top of WoT, to help users build confidence that the party they're transacting with is who they claim they are. As a very trivial example, a WoT / DiD system integrated into a browser with a crypto currency wallet could allow users to build trust with distributed identities as they browse, giving them a more confident basis on which to transfer funds later on.

DNS Spoofing Resistance

Despite efforts like DNSSec, DNSCrypt, DNS over HTTP and DANE, DNS is still a weak link in browser security. An active attacker can modify or out-race DNS traffic, to trick a user to visit a domain under their control. Web of Trust systems could potentially keep users safe from such attacks, but building coordinated, distributed-consensus style understandings of domain to IP mappings.

Such a system could operate similar to Convergence, but use a distributed trust system, instead of a fixed set of trusted DNS resolvers.

There are many potential issues that arise when considering a WoT alternative to standard DNS resolution. While such problems are not fatal to a WoT based system, they present unique challenges to be taken up by the community. These include how to provide the flexibility of DNS anycast functionality within WoT, allowing updates to domain-to-ip mappings to percolate through the WoT quickly when mappings change benignly, and creating a system that prevents leaking users' browsing history to WoT.


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