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Article from Issue 187/2016
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Sometimes you get a reminder of something you already know, and you have to stop and say, "Ah, yes, that's right, I'm awake." Several news sources ran a story recently on Google's Safe Browsing technology, which "scan websites for potential risks to warn users before they visit unsafe sites." Safe browsing is now integrated into the Chrome and Firefox browsers, which means users get a warning about sites with potentially unsafe content.

Dear Linux Magazine Reader,

Sometimes you get a reminder of something you already know, and you have to stop and say, "Ah, yes, that's right, I'm awake." Several news sources ran a story recently on Google's Safe Browsing technology, which "scan websites for potential risks to warn users before they visit unsafe sites." Safe browsing is now integrated into the Chrome and Firefox browsers, which means users get a warning about sites with potentially unsafe content. Google's Transparency Report site provides a public face for the Safe Browsing project, with information and statistics on malware detection and prevention. The Site Status page at the Transparency Report site has a search feature that lets you enter a website's URL and gives you back a rating for how safe the site is.

Now here's where it gets interesting: Several users discovered if they entered Google's own Google.com domain in the search field on the Site Status page, the status for the site came back as "partially dangerous." The world grew suddenly concerned that an act as frequent and fundamental as a Google search would be called "partially dangerous." But when you consider the nature of web spiders, the industrious little bots that crawl the web and index websites, it isn't surprising that the index could end up with an occasional malicious site. Sometimes good sites link to bad sites, and a spider diligently traveling those links will end up in some sketchy places.

Of course, most people only look on the first page (or even the first five items) in a Google search results list, and those items are often popular and well-traversed sites. The hierarchical nature of the list improves your odds, unless you flip to the back pages or enter a really obscure search term, but you are never really in the clear, because what do you really know about any website?

The problem is that the Internet is alive, and the Google index, which reflects the Internet, is alive, too. Just because it's working perfectly on Monday doesn't mean it will be working on Wednesday. Some of those Google searches turn up thousands of results, and any one of those result links could link to a site with malware or some phishing scheme, and as soon as Google finds one, another one pops up.

The "partially dangerous" rating only lasted for a couple days, at which point Google.com returned to its previous "not dangerous" rating. As transparent as Google is about the results of its safe browsing studies, the company does tend to be quite secretive about its algorithms. We don't know if some actual repairs took place that made Google.com slip back under the threshold to a safer rating, or whether they just hard-coded it back to "not dangerous" in the same way Apple intervened to get Siri to stop recommending the Nokia Lumia smartphone.

Either way, Google should be commended for even trying to track and report on malicious sites – and for building tools that automate the process of policing the index. Still, the Internet is much more dangerous than it looks. When you use a tool like Google search every day, your brain starts trusting it. You know not to click on a link sent from an unknown email source, but a link you find in a Google search? Don't get too complacent. Google's "partially dangerous" episode in another reminder to look before you click.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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