Internet users used to comfort themselves by thinking that to become victims of the pirates of the Web, they had to frequent the online porn circuit or respond to an e-mail from the widowed wife of the former central bank governor of Nigeria. The idea was that one had to do something naughty to get caught in the wrongdoers’ net, or at least go for a late-night stroll in the rough end of town.
But the conceit has become untenable. Two years ago, engineers at Google reported that about 10 percent of millions of Web pages they analyzed engaged in “drive-by downloads” of malware. Google today has about 330,000 Web sites listed as malicious, up from about 150,000 a year ago.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department charged a 28-year-old from Miami and a couple of Russians with stealing 130 million credit card numbers from one of the largest payment processing companies in the world, which should know how to protect its computers from hackers. And last week, McAfee, the maker of antivirus software, reported that fans searching for Hollywood gossip and memorabilia faced a high risk of getting caught up by online bad guys.
Searching for the actress Jessica Biel, who won an achievement award at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2006 and ranked in third place on Maxim magazine’s Hot 100 list last year, is most dangerous, with a 1 in 5 chance of landing at a Web site that tested positive for spyware, adware, spam, phishing, viruses or other noxious stuff. Searches of Beyoncé, Britney Spears and even Tom Brady of the New England Patriots are risky, too, according to McAfee. More than 40 percent of Google search results for “Jennifer Aniston screen savers” contained viruses, including one called FunLove.
Perhaps cybercops will respond more aggressively to Internet threats as they spread to the more wholesome parts of the Web, like police forces that leave crime alone in the poor parts of town but snap into action when it seeps into middle-class neighborhoods. McAfee, to no one’s surprise, suggests that we buy McAfee software.
But with more and more information about people’s credit cards, browsing histories and identities sloshing around online, I wonder whether this will do. A few months ago, I nervously created my first Facebook page with the minimum necessary information to view pictures posted by old friends.
I returned to the page a few days later to discover that somehow it had found out both the name of my college and my graduation class, displaying them under my name. I have not returned since. In the back of my mind, I fear a 28-year-old hacker and a couple of Russians have gathered two more facts about me that I would rather they didn’t have. And it’s way too late to take my life offline.