On the morning of May 4, two days after the stunning announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by an elite special forces team, newspapers around the world ran a photograph of top-level security aides gripped to their seats, presumably watching the final moments before bin Laden’s death.
David Eddie, a Canadian author, saw that picture in the paper and knew that somewhere out there, a video of the attack existed. When he went on Facebook later that day and saw a link on his page —“Exclusive: bin Laden death video” — well, he couldn’t help himself. He had to see it.
He clicked on the link, and it took him to a random Web page. No video. He had been had. Minutes later, every friend in his address book knew of his mistake. A message from Eddie had arrived on their walls: “Exclusive: bin Laden death video.”
Viruses are nothing new on social media sites, but the speed with which they are travelling is at an all-time high.
The uptick in spam messages after President Obama’s speech was “ridiculously huge,” said Dave Marcus, director of security research and communications at McAfee Labs. McAfee, a computer security company, prepares for more spam onslaughts after big news stories, which scammers use to lure people into clicking. “The goal is to get you to click something . . . It’s only the lure that’s going to change,” Marcus said.
While most people are aware of e-mail scams, viruses that are spread on social media sites seem to befuddle folks. The success of social media is partly to blame: People trust them as a way to safely pass along links to their friends. Facebook, in particular, is the second-highest traffic driver to news sites, just behind Google.
Fred Wolens, the security issues spokesman for Facebook, says the site has always worked hard to create a safe environment. But partially prompted by the bin Laden links, the company announced on Thursday another tool in its anti-virus arsenal. Facebook is partnering with Web of Trust (WOT), a crowdsourcing virus site. Users report suspicious links to WOT, which places them on a blacklist. In Facebook, each time a person clicks on a link before a new page opens, the link will automatically be vetted against WOT’s list. If there is a match, it will send a warning to the user, who may spread the news. “User education is a huge part of this,” Wolens said.
Most viruses on social media sites are not extremely harmful. Some do ask for credit card information, but only a small percentage of people will go that far, Wolens said. Most times, the virus just tries to access information either by seeking out data on your computer or by asking you to fill in a survey. The spam companies then sell that data. Some viruses install malware on a computer that will help spam companies track infected computers. McAfee offers a free program, Stinger, to scan computers to see if they have been infected.
There’s one other thing a virus can do: reveal too much about your interests to your friends. Often, when you click on a link, the virus will use your friend list to post the virus link to all your friends’ walls and format it to look as if you sent it. Last week, for instance, I found out my 13-year-old cousin wanted to see what her future child would look like. Another friend clicked on a virus that promised to reveal who checked out his Facebook profile. And, worst of all, a former colleague tried to see a sexy video of a young college coed.
Eddie, the author, posted a status update apologizing to his friends for blasting the bin Laden virus. He rarely goes on Facebook, referring to the Internet as “an evil beast that is munching up everything I love.” His friends forgave him easily. One even saw a silver lining, commenting: “Well, at least it forced you to participate in this Facebook thing!”