- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The World Wide Web is sometimes compared to the Wild West, but a new survey suggests the Web looks more like a city with a variety of neighborhoods.

Some are safe. Some are not.

Researchers from Santa Clara, Calif., computer security giant McAfee Inc. analyzed 9.9 million popular sites in 265 different Web domains - the regions denominated in the last part of the Internet address. Domains are either generic - like .gov or .com - or national, like .ru for Russia.

The survey found that Hong Kong’s .hk domain was the Internet neighborhood with the highest proportion of risky sites, with nearly one in five rated “red” or “yellow” in a three-tier grading system. “Green” sites are considered safe.

“It’s like a kind of giant tourist guide … for the Web,” said the survey’s author, Shane Keats. McAfee’s second annual “Mapping the Mal Web” report will help Internet surfers identify the areas they ought to be wary of, telling them, in effect, “This is an alley you don’t want to go down,” Mr. Keats said.

The Chinese national domain, .cn, was the second riskiest this year, tying with the generic domain .info, both of which had 11.8 percent of their sites flagged. Finland, .fi, remained the safest online destination for the second year running with 0.05 percent of sites rated risky, followed by Japan, .jp.

Mr. Keats said the data was collected by a McAfee software program that “crawls the Web and clicks ‘Yes’ to everything” using a unique e-mail address and virtual computer for each site it visited. “If that [computer] gets spyware on it” or the e-mail address started to receive large volumes of spam, “we know exactly where it came from,” he said. Those sites were flagged.

The free program, called Site Advisor, is one of a number of so-called safe search tools that warn surfers when they are about to visit a site considered dangerous.

“No one suggests you shouldn’t use the interstate [highway system] because there are horrible accidents on it every day,” Mr. Keats said. “But if you are going to drive, drive in a safe car and put on your seat belt.”

“If you are going to surf the Web, make sure you have up-to-date security software and use a safe search tool,” he said.

The threats represented by risky sites “run the gamut from the merely annoying to the egregious,” Mr. Keats said.

At one end were the sites offering free downloads of screensavers or other software - “a lot of them aimed at teens and tweens” - bundled with so-called adware, which generates annoying pop-up ads for users.

At the other end of the threat spectrum were so-called “drive-by exploits” - software that can download itself onto a computer without any action on the part of the visitor.

“Just by touching the site,” said Mr. Keats, a computer could get infected with hacker programs like password sniffers, which enable people’s identity and cash to be stolen; or recruited into vast “botnets” of enslaved machines which hackers use to send spam or launch cyber attacks.

“These are very dangerous, but very rare,” Mr. Keats said

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