Stop Bad Errors

I recently upgraded to Ubuntu 8.04, which comes with the most recent beta of Firefox 3.0. The new version of Firefox has a number of interesting features, not the least of which is a set of measures to reduce drive-by infection of PCs.

If they wander from the beaten path, people now see a big red sign warning them about so-called ‘Attack Sites’ – websites that are reported to have used various means to infect visiting systems with malicious software:

The graphic is fairly well done, but interestingly, there’s no obvious way to over-ride the warning and go to the site anyway. Not that one would want to, but it does raise the bar for circumventing this anti-rube device while raising questions about who gets to decide what’s bad and what’s good.

The ‘Get Me Out Of Here!’ button smacks of Flickr-style smarminess, sending (in my humble opinion) the wrong kind of message. Either be the police constable or be my buddy, but don’t try to be both. That’s just patronising.

I followed the second button to see how the situation would be explained to the curious. I was brought to a page providing a less-than-illuminating statement that the site in question had been reported to be infected by so-called ‘badware’.

The service tracks websites whose content has been compromised, deliberately or not, and provides data about these sites to the public in order to protect Internet users from drive-by infection. With sponsorship from Google, Lenovo, Sun, PayPal, VeriSign and others, the service is obviously viewed in the corporate community as a necessary and responsible answer to the issue of malware infection.

At the time of this writing, the Stop Badware databases listed over a quarter of a million websites as infected.

The report page itself was less than a stellar example of information presentation, especially about a security-related topic. In the top left corner is a colour-coded circle with three states:

Safe StopBadware testing has found badware behavior on this site.
Caution One or more StopBadware partners are reporting badware behavior on this site.
Badware No StopBadware partners are reporting badware behavior on this site.

So the difference between red and yellow here is not one of degree, it’s based on who reported it. Not only is this useless as a threat measurement, it sends the wrong message to people using the service, implying that there’s a distinction to be made between what Stop Badware finds out for themselves and what their partners find. By treating the sources differently, they’re inadvertently creating a distinction between gospel and rumour, implying that some sources are less reliable than others.

The report page for the domain in question is populated using the GET method, meaning that you can plug any domain name right into the address bar (if you know the URL components) and get a report on it. Unfortunately, it never occurred to the good people at Stop Badware that some might want to use this capability to check the status of an arbitrary domain. (Amusingly, this method also circumvents the captcha on the ‘official’ report page.)

When I checked the status of my own domain, I was informed that, in effect, I’d recently stopped beating my wife:

Google has removed the warning from this site.

It’s interesting when you’re faced with a sentence in which nearly every word is wrong. Google has removed the site? Where am I? Isn’t this Stop Badware? Removed the warning for this site? There never was one. And even if there was a warning at one point in time, people don’t need to be told that. This message is a bit like saying, ‘So-and-so is a great guy! He doesn’t drink at all any more.

I applaud the Stop Badware service and the concept, and I look forward to the day when someone actually does a bit of usability research for them.

P.S. Could we please do something about the term ‘badware’? It’s almost sickeningly patronising. Some might argue that terms like ‘virus’, ‘trojan’ and ‘malware’ are too arcane, but I say we should just pick one and stick with it, regardless of how accurate it actually is.

People know and (ab)use the term ‘virus’, so why don’t we get the geek-stick out of our lexical butt and just use it? It’s a virus. You’ve got a virus. Who cares what it is or how you got it. You got a virus and now your computer needs to be treated before you can use it safely again. Now, how hard was that?