Google temporarily marks all Web sites as dangerous

January 31, 2009

If you were searching the Web via Google at just the wrong time this morning, you probably got a bit of a shock, in the form of warnings that said every site on the World Wide Web was a malware suspect.

For about an hour, every search returned every hit flagged with the notation. “This site may harm your computer.” This message is generally reserved for sites that are known to have infected the browsers and computers of users with malware. Twitter and Plurk, plus probably all of the other social media sites, were flooded with messages about the problem. Depending on your browser settings, you may have found it impossible to get into any site via a Google search.

According to a blog posting by Marissa Mayer, VP, search products & user experience at Google, “If you did a Google search between 6:30 a.m. and 7:25 a.m. (Pacific Standard Time) this morning, you likely saw that the message “This site may harm your computer” accompanied each and every search result. This was clearly an error, and we are very sorry for the inconvenience caused to our users.”

Ms. Mayer went on to say that the problem was caused when Google received a new malware-site update file from StopBadWare.com, a non-profit group that tracks sites which serve up malware. Google uses information from this group to determine which sites should be marked with the malware warning message. There was a problem with the update file this morning.

The file included the URL “/” as a site that can serve malware to users. The URL “/” of course expands to include all web sites. Thus, once the file was updated, users began to experience the problem described above. Mayer says that “our on-call site reliability team found the problem quickly and reverted the file. Since we push these updates in a staggered and rolling fashion, the errors began appearing between 6:27 a.m. and 6:40 a.m. and began disappearing between 7:10 and 7:25 a.m., so the duration of the problem for any particular user was approximately 40 minutes.”

This incident shows how easily errors can be introduced within a computer system, and how quickly such a problem can grow to encompass all users of a popular system like Google. There is no doubt that millions of users saw the erroneous message. Fortunately, this particular problem was caught and corrected fairly quickly. However, it does give one reason to think anew about how easy it is to spread and multiply problems with a computer…

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