A few month ago, my 10-year-old son asked me to help him find a site about animé, the popular Japanese animation style. I was happy to help – we've got pretty strict rules about the use of the Internet in my house, and he knew that roaming around on his own was a no-no. Besides, I was the smart tech columnist who knew what I was doing. Ha!
My troubles began when we went to a particularly innocent-looking site. Right away I could tell that something bad had happened. Pop-ups began proliferating on my screen at an alarming rate, not all of them appropriate for a 10-year-old. Using my security software and other tools, I tried to track down the malicious software, but nothing seemed to help. Ultimately, I resorted to deleting that particular user profile from the computer – the only way, it seemed at the time, to destroy the thing.
While there are many good programs to help remove malicious software (such as Lavasoft's free program Ad-Aware, which I use), there has not been an "early warning system" that could send up a flare, so to speak, when you were about to visit a site that could harm your computer. That may change, thanks to two new initiatives: One is from McAfee, the software-security people, and the other is from Google.
McAfee is offering a new piece of free software called SiteAdvisor, which works with your Web browser. When you search on Google or Yahoo, it alerts you to dangerous sites. A text box that resides in the lower right corner of your browser window turns green, yellow, or red depending on the danger involved in visiting the site.
According to a press release, McAfee has tested 6.4 million websites (a drop in the Web bucket, but a start) for "Web safety issues including spyware, viruses, exploits, online scams, and, of course, spam." After you download SiteAdvisor, it checks links against this database.
I downloaded the software (very easy to do), and it works as advertised. I think it would be particularly useful for parents who have kids who like to download music (legally), screensavers, ringtones, and free software of all kinds.
Also, McAfee has set up a spam quiz, where you can test your knowledge of potentially dangerous sites. The quiz offers you pairs of sites in different categories. One site generates very little spam, another can send several hundred messages a week. It's basically a guessing game to know which is which. (I got five out of eight correct, but I didn't really have a clue as to the correct answers.)
You can take the spam quiz at www.mcafee.com/spamquiz. On the final page of the quiz, you get your score – and a link to a free download of SiteAdvisor. (Yes, free. But no doubt you'll be offered an upgrade later – for a price.)
The other option comes from Google. In early August, the company began phasing in a similar early warning system. When a user clicks on a site that is potentially dangerous, he or she gets this message: "The site you are about to visit may harm your computer!"
Once you get the warning, Google doesn't stop you from going to the site – but don't be surprised if bad things happen to your computer. Google says that the project is still very small.
Google is one of the key sponsors of StopBadware.org, a project developed at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and Oxford University in Britain designed to catalog and provide information on malicious software.
Yes, I know it's annoying to have to do all this work just to surf the Net. But whether we like it or not, we need our own form of "homeland security" to protect our computers. If we ignore the threat, the price may be lost information, a messed-up computer, or enough spam to last you several lifetimes. Or all three.
So don't be like me and assume that just because you've been on the Web for years that you can determine good from bad. These new programs can help you make those decisions.