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Real-Time Searches Lead to Real-Time Malware

Search results may increasingly be poisoned with links to malicious sites, a researcher says.
July 29, 2010

Searching for a hot news topic or buzzword can already lead an unsuspecting person to harmful malware. Recent articles are full of warnings about malware hidden in links that are supposedly about the World Cup or the Icelandic Volcano. Estimates have suggested that about 14 percent of traditional searches for trending news go to sites hosting malware.

As real-time search becomes more important, the problem of malware-related results could become much worse, according to a talk given yesterday by Dan Hubbard, CTO of Websense, at the Cloud Security Alliance Summit, which took place at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas. The event brought together speakers from government, industry, academia, and the underground. Hubbard outlined several ways that real-time search results are easy to poison.

Much of the problem stems from the nature of information provided in real time, Hubbard says. It’s noisy, spammy, and not authoritative. So search engines have a difficult task ahead determining what links can be trusted.

The results are also easy to manipulate. Hubbard experimented with searches related to the recent Boston marathon. He found that he could get posts to the top of real-time search engine results by posting in anticipation of events. For example, he posted information about who had won before there was a winner, garnering a top spot on real-time results pages. He found that he could trick even Google by introducing typos that other users might be likely to make (such as “Botson” marathon). And, by posting images along with text, Hubbard found that he was able to rocket his posts to the top of results pages.

Hubbard says spammers could use social graphs to manipulate real-time search results as well. A botnet, for example, could create large numbers of interconnected Twitter accounts, creating a source of information that could seem authoritative. Hubbard also pointed to recent reports of spammers taking over the Twitter accounts of well-known users.

There may be big opportunities for spammers as location gets factored into the ranking of real-time results. Current location services trust where users say they are, he says. Location is also relatively easy to spoof. Spammers could add their links to real-time search ranks by seeming, for example, to tweet about the Icelandic volcano from Iceland, or about the Boston marathon from the finish line.

Hubbard plans to continue his investigation by looking at how spammers might be able to influence Facebook streams and search, and what they might be able to do with the popular location-based social network Foursquare.

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