The web is scarier than most people realise, according to research published recently by Google.
The search engine giant trained its web crawling software on billions of web addresses over the past year looking for malicious pages that tried to attack their visitors. They found more than three million of them, meaning that about one in 1,000 pages is malicious, according to Neils Provos, a senior staff software engineer with Google.
These web-based attacks, called "drive-by downloads" by security experts, have become much more common in recent years as firewalls and better security practices have made it harder for worms and viruses to directly attack computers.
In the past year the websites of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" film and the Miami Dolphins were hacked, and the MySpace profile of Alicia Keys was used to attack visitors.
Criminals are getting better at this kind of work. They have built very successful automated tools that poke and prod sites, looking for programming errors and then exploit these flaws to install the drive-by download software. Often this code opens an invisible iFrame page on the victim's browser that redirects it to a malicious server. That server then tries to install code on the victim's PC. "The bad guys are getting exceptionally good at automating those attacks," said Roger Thompson, chief research officer with security vendor Grisoft.
In response, Google has stepped up its game. One of the reasons it has been scouring the web for malicious pages is so that it can identify drive-by-download sites and warn Google searchers before they visit them. Nowadays about 1.3 per cent of all Google search queries list malicious results somewhere on the first few pages.
Some of the data surprised Provos.
"When we started going into this I had the firm intuition that if you go to the sleazier parts of the web, you are in more danger," he said.
It turns out the web's nice neighbourhoods aren't necessarily safer than its red-light districts.
"We looked into this and indeed we found that if you ended up going to adult-oriented pages, your risk of being exposed [to malicious software] was slightly higher," he said. But "there really wasn't a huge difference."
"Staying away from the disreputable part of the internet really isn't good enough," he noted.
Another interesting finding: China was far and away the greatest source of malicious web sites. According to Google's research, 67 per cent of all malware distribution sites are hosted in China. The second-worst offender is the US, at 15 per cent, followed by Russia, (4 per cent) Malaysia (2.2 per cent) and Korea (2 per cent).
It costs next-to-nothing to register a web domain in China and service providers are often slow to shut down malicious pages, said Thompson. "They're the Kleenex web sites," he said. Criminals "know they're going to be shut down, and they don't care."
Malicious site operators in China fall into two broad categories, Thompson said: fraudsters looking to steal your banking password, and teenagers who want to steal your World of Warcraft character.
So how to stop this growing pestilence?
Google's Provos has this advice for surfers: Turn automatic updates on. "You should always run your software as updated as possible and install some kind of antivirus technology," he said.
But he also thinks that webmasters will have to get smarter about building secure sites. "I think it will take concentrated efforts on all parts," for the problem to go away, he said.