Google Inc. has almost cut in half the malicious software affecting users of its search engine, driving hackers to competitors including Microsoft Inc.’s Bing, Yahoo! Inc. and Twitter Inc., a report says.
Hackers targeted Google, owner of the most popular search engine, 38 percent of the time as of Dec. 31, according to the report to be released later this month by Barracuda Networks Inc., a web security firm. Mountain View, California-based Google accounted for 69 percent of the attacks in a sample conducted around June, the report says. A Barracuda report in July labeled Google “king of malware.”
Even as Google improved its security, the number of attacks increased. In the December sample, Barracuda said it found 226 pieces of bad software a day, compared with 146 in June. Meanwhile, Google’s competitors recorded an increase in malware- laced search results: Cyber criminals placed 30 percent of their bad software on Yahoo! search results in December, up from 18 percent in June. Bing accounted for 24 percent in December, up from 12 percent in June. And the targeting of Twitter rose to 8 percent from 1 percent, the report says.
Google said it has ratcheted up efforts to identify and scrub attempts at so-called search poisoning, which allows criminals to take control of computers to perpetuate cyber attacks, as well as large-scale banking and identity-theft swindles.
“We have done a lot of work to detect these quickly and to warn users,” Niels Provos, principal software engineer in Google’s infrastructure security group, said in an interview. Last year, it took 10 hours to remove the bugs; now it takes an hour, he said.
Until a few years ago, worms, viruses, Trojans and other such malware could largely be avoided if users stayed away from porn sites and other dubious web neighborhoods. The cyber thieves’ gambit to infect search results is harder to bypass. Americans conducted 17.8 billion searches in November 2010, a 23 percent increase from a year earlier, according to ComScore Inc., a Reston Virginia-based market-research firm.
“One of the reasons this is so highly targeted is the volume of searches is increasing rapidly,” said Paul Judge, chief research officer of Campbell, California-based Barracuda. “People have become lazy and dependent on” Google and its rivals.
Targeting Popular Searches
During a 60-day period last year, one out of every three terms ranked most popular by search companies produced a result that linked to malicious code, Judge said.
Recently, some web users who clicked on search results for Gwyneth Paltrow, Brett Favre and Prince William’s fiancée Kate Middleton were tricked into downloading programs that allowed criminals to take over their computers, the consultants said.
Once hackers get access, they scour data banks for Social Security numbers, tax returns and other personal information, said Chris Swecker, former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s criminal investigative division.
“They want to suck information out of your computer,” said Swecker, who heads his own Charlotte, North Carolina-based security consulting firm.
The infected PCs then also can be enlisted in an army of other unwitting machines known as botnets that are used to carry out scams.
The criminals rely on some of the same techniques -- sprinkling key words, links and videos on their websites -- legitimate companies use to boost their search-result rankings, Judge said.
“The attackers have learned from the marketing people,” he said.
Some companies make the criminals’ job easier by ranking their searches, the most popular of which are then targeted to be infected, he said.
Cyber criminals also spread rumors -- including recent false reports of singer Gwen Stefani’s death -- to spark searches they can embed with their programs, said Anup Ghosh, a former program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
In one recent incident, users who clicked on a picture of Paltrow at a New York charity event were greeted by a dialog box that said their computer needed to be scanned for viruses. A click on that box triggered animation simulating a scan that claimed to find numerous viruses. Choosing “remove all” downloaded the malicious program. The link was taken down one hour after it appeared.
For the most part, security companies spend most of their time developing anti-viral programs and fixes for existing software and aren’t focused on cleaning up the searches, said Ghosh, who founded Fairfax, Virginia-based Invincea Inc. to create products to fill that void.
“Just about everybody in the security industry ignores this problem,” said Ghosh.
That may be changing. Google and Microsoft engineers said they scan billions of web addresses daily to identify suspect sites. The rivals also share information on hacker search ploys, said Bruce Cowper, a group manager in Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing unit.
“As attacks become more complex, I think there’s going to be a lot more collaboration across the industry,” he said.
Dana Lengkeek, a Yahoo! spokeswoman, referred questions to Microsoft, which provides security for the Sunnyvale, California-based company’s search engine. Matt Graves and Jodi Olson, spokespeople for San Francisco-based Twitter, didn’t respond to e-mails.
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