The Web is scarier than most people realize, according to research published recently by Google.
The search engine giant trained its Web crawling software on billions of Web addresses over the past year looking for malicious pages that tried to attack their visitors. They found more than 3 million of them, meaning that about one in 1,000 Web pages is malicious, according to Neils Provos, a senior staff software engineer with Google.
These Web-based attacks, called "drive-by downloads" by security experts, have become much more common in recent years as firewalls and better security practices by Microsoft have made it harder for worms and viruses to directly attack computers.
In the past year the Web sites of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth movie and the Miami Dolphins were hacked, and the MySpace profile of Alicia Keys was used to attack visitors.
Criminals are getting better at this kind of work. They have built very successful automated tools that poke and prod Web sites, looking for programming errors and then exploit these flaws to install the drive-by download software. Often this code opens an invisible iFrame page on the victim's browser that redirects it to a malicious Web server. That server then tries to install code on the victim's PC. "The bad guys are getting exceptionally good at automating those attacks," said Roger Thompson, chief research officer with security vendor Grisoft.
In response, Google has stepped up its game. One of the reasons it has been scouring the Web for malicious pages is so that it can identify drive-by-download sites and warn Google searchers before they visit them. Nowadays about 1.3 percent of all Google search queries list malicious results somewhere on the first few pages.
Some of the data surprised Provos.
"When we started going into this, I had the firm intuition that if you go to the sleazier parts of the Web, you are in more danger," he said.
It turns out the Web's nice neighborhoods aren't necessarily safer than its red-light districts.
"We looked into this and indeed we found that if you ended up going to adult-oriented pages, your risk of being exposed [to malicious software] was slightly higher," he said. But "there really wasn't a huge difference."
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