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“It builds trust with the customers” - Exploring User Perceptions of the Padlock Icon in Browser UI

Emanuel von Zezschwitz
SecWeb 2022, IEEE


We performed a large-scale online survey (n=1,880) to study the padlock icon, an established security indicator in web browsers that denotes connection security through HTTPS. In this paper, we evaluate users' understanding of the padlock icon, and how removing or replacing it might influence their expectations and decisions. We found that the majority of respondents (89%) had misconceptions about the padlock's meaning. While only a minority (23%-44%) referred to the padlock icon at all when asked to evaluate trustworthiness, these padlock-aware users reported that they would be deterred from a hypothetical shopping transaction when the padlock icon was absent. These users were reassured after seeing secondary UI surfaces (i.e., Chrome Page Info) where more verbose information about connection security was present. We conclude that the padlock icon, displayed by browsers in the address bar, is still misunderstood by many users. The padlock icon guarantees connection security, but is often perceived to indicate the general privacy, security, and trustworthiness of a website. We argue that communicating connection security precisely and clearly is likely to be more effective through secondary UI, where there is more surface area for content. We hope that this paper boosts the discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of showing passive security indicators in the browser UI.