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Yahoo's Search Scan Beta


Early Detection of Suspicious Websites with Yahoo's Search Scan Feature

By: Elizabeth Ann West

If Yahoo is your default search engine, you may notice red triangle warnings now appear next to some search results. The red warning triangles are part of Yahoo's new Search Scan Beta feature, an effort to protect users from suspicious and malicious websites. Utilizing McAfee's database of malicious content, Yahoo is now helping users to pinpoint the origin of such dangerous web entities like spam email, unauthorized installations, and hacker portals.

To use Yahoo's Search Scan, simply enter a search term into the search bar. Some search terms may not yield any warnings, but if you search for known malware names such as "winantiviruspro" warnings will likely appear. For "winantiviruspro" specifically, two potentially dangerous websites appear in the top ten results. Both of these websites are labeled "Warning: Dangerous Downloads."

Dangerous downloads are not the only threat on the web. Websites that pose as legitimate web communities can be information mines for spam emailers or hackers. These websites are a different type of danger to users because it opens a computer up to a variety of other threats, that may not be easily identifiable. Many users rely on the safety of Windows Firewall, and the problem with such reliance on an industry standard is the likelihood hackers will target it looking for vulnerabilities. Systems become even more vulnerable when a hacker gleans personal information such as names, IP addresses, or other user information from a user's website visit.

While Yahoo's Search Scan is a step in the right direction for web users, the program has some limitations. First, the location of the warning label, under the link, is not ideal if users do not take the time to read the description. A better location might be to the left of the link title. Better yet, Yahoo should move the suspicious websites to a separate listing. Future versions should also give searchers the option of removing websites labeled as dangerous from search results entirely.

This problem is magnified when one considers the power of a link click. Advances in HTML, CSS, Java, and other programming languages make a simple link click more dangerous than ever. Scripts, applets, and other applications can start, install, and run from a link. Plus, programmers of the website have complete control over the link title, or display wording to the user. Yahoo's warning system may backfire from the use of red under the link name because it will draw additional attention to the suspicious links in the results page.

Search Scan acts only as a filter for search results. Yahoo's Search Scan is not a spyware or malware remover. Pure reliance on Yahoo's Search Scan to protect a web user from malicious spyware and adware will not be sufficient for the health of the operating system. All web users should use a layered protection approach: a search engine with filtering suspicious results, a firewall, and a commercial spyware and virus remover such as XoftSpySE by ParetoLogic. The layered approach will make it more difficult for outsiders to take advantage of any one vulnerability in any of programs, because the other security measures should compensate.

While the Internet is a community abhorrent of censorship, a filter like Yahoo's Search Scan is needed. It would be a better feature if users were able to control the severity of Search Scan. Users should control options like removing suspicious results from the listing entirely, or turning Search Scan off in order to receive results that may be suspicious depending on the user's search needs. Yahoo already authorizes unique login, and this could easily become part of a search preferences page.

In addition, Yahoo's Search Scan may also allow users to become even more complacent about Internet security. Just because a link does not contain a warning, users should still use common sense about browsing websites. Avoidance of unfamiliar websites, or those with suspicious descriptions is one way to minimize the likelihood of malware and hacking. Another key component to safe Internet browsing  is a layering of security measures: a search engine with filter, a firewall, and malware removal tool like Malwarebytes Anti-Malware (Malwarebytes has free malware removal) .

Overall, Yahoo's Search Scan feature should make web browsing safer for the average user. Since this is a newer feature for Yahoo, there will probably be a period of learning for both users and the company. Hopefully subsequent releases of Search Scan will offer users more control options, include more information about the threat, and cover new threats like fraudulent websites. Now users can more effectively avoid dangerous websites altogether, and not wait for the warning message about a specific download when it might be too late.

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