Google Issues Infection Warnings

July 20, 2011

As every Internet user knows, Google has its finger in a lot of pies.  Yesterday, the company began warning some users of its search engine that their computers appeared to be infected with malware.

In an announcement on the Official Google Blog, Google security engineer Damian Menscher said that the company first noticed some unusual patterns of network traffic during a routine maintenance operation..

Recently, we found some unusual search traffic while performing routine maintenance on one of our data centers. After collaborating with security engineers at several companies that were sending this modified traffic, we determined that the computers exhibiting this behavior were infected with a particular strain of malicious software, or “malware.”

Following the investigation, Google began to return a warning message at the top of the search results for some users, warning them that their machines appeared to be compromised.

Google's Malware Warning

Apparently, this particular variety of malicious software causes requests sent by the infected computer to be routed via a small group of proxy servers, which are controlled by the attackers.  If the request is to a search site like Google, or Bing, the proxy can then alter the returned search results to direct the user toward specific pay-per-click or malicious sites.  Google’s hypothesis is that the malware originally infected the users’ computers via a fake anti-virus program.

Because of the huge volume and diversity of Internet traffic that Google sees, it  is in an excellent position to detect this kind of thing; I think the company is to be commended for taking the trouble to notify users.

In addition to the announcement, Google has a Help Center article with advice on cleaning up an infected PC.   Brian Krebs also has an article on this development at his Krebs on Security blog.

Does Google Affect Your Memory?

July 20, 2011

Last week, the Washington Post carried a report of some new research that seemed to suggest that people’s use of Internet search engines, such as Google, is affecting the way their memories are organized.   The study, carried out by Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin (Madison), and Daniel Wegner of Harvard University, was published in the journal Science [abstract] on July 14.

The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.

The four experiments that the authors carried out, using a group of Columbia undergraduates as subjects, are described in the Post article (there is an article on this research in the “Wired Science” blog at Wired as well), and were fairly ingenious.  In essence, the researchers found that, when the subjects thought that new information would later be available online, they remembered the information less well; and they remembered where to find the information better than they did the content.

This may sound like something more novel than it actually is.  As the study’s authors point out, strategies in which people rely on computer data for part of their memory are in many ways another type of transactive memory strategy.  This is a phenomenon observed in, for example, couples, and in teams of co-workers, where the group develops a collective memory system based on the particular memories of individuals and on the members’ knowledge of each others’ memories.  For example, one member of a couple may be (implicitly) assigned to remember birthdays, anniversaries, and so on.  One member of a team at work might be the “go-to guy” for a particular class of technical questions.  The result is a group memory system that potentially surpasses the capabilities of any individual.  Readers, I’m sure, will be able to think of examples from their own experience.   The Internet has made a large body of information much more easily available to the average person, allowing it to be “recruited” as a member of the group.

The authors also note that, as expected, individuals shift their memory strategies when they know that looking up information later is an option.  This also is not so new; I have rarely seen a university professor in math, or physics, who did not have an office full of books.  There are a fair number of books in my office as I sit writing this.  What is perhaps new is the “democratization” of easily accessible knowledge, because of the existence of the Internet.  Of course, there is a good deal of rubbish out there; but it is also true that many people today have access to sources of knowledge that, a few decades ago, would have been completely out of reach because of geography or economics.

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