Web Searches and Dangerous Ladies

I feel like the learned judge in the ’60s who asked, in the course of a trial, "What is a Beatle?" since until recently I couldn’t have given you an accurate answer to the question "What is a Jessica Biel?"

In fact, I’d probably have said something like ""Wasn’t she in Flashdance?" (The answer is no: she would apparently have been a baby when I saw Jennifer Beals in that film, back in the days when I had a social life.) Clearly, I need to do something about my work/life balance, and the fact that I now only ever see movies on television or on planes.

Or perhaps not, since McAfee have reported, according to Yahoo News, that web searches for Ms Biel are "more likely to lead to online threats such as spyware and viruses than searches for any other celebrity."

There’s a certain irony here, in that the media and the blogosphere have picked up so readily on McAfee’s latest report, based on statistics from their SiteAdvisor site rating database. Well, celebrity stories are not only the stock-in-trade of many journalists and a major preoccupation of much of their readership (clearly there’s a correlation between those two factors!) but also a favoured target among spammers, scammers and purveyors of malware, who are always ready to use a topical story (real, fabricated, important or trivial) as social engineering bait in order to spread Badness.

Why is it ironic? Because even while they’re pointing to the dangers of celebrity hunting on the ‘net, they are, to some extent, perpetuating it. Of course, it’s a good thing if more people become aware of the dangers that malicious search engine optimization (SEO) poses, and I don’t blame McAfee for using the "cult of celebrity" to make that point, but it’s a pity that the media is focused on that narrow aspect of a much wider problem.

McAfee researchers Shane Keats and Eipe Koshy came out with a substantial research document earlier this year, using a number of statistical resources as well as SiteAdvisor. Rather than focusing on celebrities, it looked at a whole range of hooks used by the bad guys to lure the unwary, using search categories like screensavers, free games, taxes and viagra, as well as personalities from the entertainment world and politics.

Why is it ironic? Because even while they’re pointing to the dangers of celebrity hunting on the ‘net, they are, to some extent, perpetuating it. Of course, it’s a good thing if more people become aware of the dangers that malicious search engine optimization (SEO) poses, and I don’t blame McAfee for using the "cult of celebrity" to make that point, but it’s a pity that the media is focused on that narrow aspect of a much wider problem.

McAfee researchers Shane Keats and Eipe Koshy came out with a substantial research document earlier this year, using a number of statistical resources as well as SiteAdvisor. Rather than focusing on celebrities, it looked at a whole range of hooks used by the bad guys to lure the unwary, using search categories like screensavers, free games, taxes and viagra, as well as personalities from the entertainment world and politics.

Bizarrely, while celebrities did rank number 7 in the list of high-risk keywords in the US, the top two items in the table "Top 50 riskiest search terms in the United States" were "word scrambler" and "lyrics", so perhaps Lady Mondegreen is even more dangerous than Jessica. :)

But the paper deserves much closer attention than I can give it in a short blog. If you’re interested in what other psychological quirks the bad guys are finding it useful to exploit, take a look.

David Harley BA CISSP FBCS CITP
Director of Malware Intelligence

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Author David Harley, ESET

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