How Dangerous is Web Surfing?

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Samantha asked the Antivirus & Security Software forum about the likelihood of a web site infecting her PC, and whether certain types of web sites are more dangerous than others.

Web sites can infect your PC. And yes, adult sites are more likely to get you into trouble. But you can catch malware from a respectable site, as well. In most cases, the site has been hijacked, and its owner is only guilty of lax security practices.

The porn site-malware connection is an interesting one. According to a study done last year by the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security, 11.4 percent of pay adult sites, and 34.2 of free ones, "use questionable methods and techniques that can best be described as ‘shady.'" These include tricks like taking over your browser so you can't easily leave the site. But only 3.23 percent actually "trigger malicious behavior such as code execution, registry changes, or executable downloads." And in 98.2 percent of those cases, the adult site appears to have been hijacked, and is not an intentional carrier of malicious code.

It's worth noting that the private modes found in modern browsers (called InPrivate in Internet Explorer, Private Browsing in Firefox, and Incognito Mode in Chrome) are of no help in this situation. The browser won't keep records of the sites you visit while in this mode, but the sites themselves can do as much harm here as they can when browsing conventionally.

But you can all but eliminate the possibility of that harm by following these rules:

* Keep your security software, including your firewall, up to date.

* Keep your browser up-to-date.

* If a browser warns you that a page is dangerous, don't visit that page, even if you know it's owned by trustworthy people. If you can get a message to those people without visiting the site, let them know about the problem.

* Scan your hard drive regularly with an on-demand security program made by a company that didn't make your regular security software.

If you're really paranoid about a site, either don't go there, or boot a live Linux CD or flash drive and access the site without using Windows.

Read the original forum discussion.

Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes about technology and cinema. Email your tech questions to him at, or post them to a community of helpful folks on the PCW Answer Line forum. Follow Lincoln on Twitter.

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