7 On Your Side

Can shortened URLs be trusted?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Those tiny URLs or shrunken web addresses often used in social media sites like Twitter and Facebook could be a potential hazard to your computer.

Here is how it works: you put in the website link and shrink it and a smaller link is created. A more manageable size can be more easily used on social sites and in e-mails. They are convenient, but there are also concerns.

"I don't click unknown links to things where I think I don't know where it is going," scientist Darya Pino said.

Pino runs the very successful healthy eating website Summer Tomato. She posts shortened URLs and still is concerned, as it turns out, with good reason.

"There is a possibility, a dangerous potential there of people taking URLs and masking them effectively with a tiny URL," Ryan Holmes said.

Holmes runs HootSuite, a social media management site that provides shortening. He says HootSuite checks every site it shortens.

"It looks at the URL, compares it to a database of known bad URLs and bad websites and will flag it," he said.

Click on a troubled URL and a pop-up warns against going on. HootSuite offers protection, but not all sites do, so should we be concerned?

Computer security firm Zscaler has been looking into that.

"We got well over 1 million users who go through our cloud every day. So we can see real traffic to see out of those people, who is clicking on tiny URLs and are they good or bad," Zscaler CEO Jay Chaudhry said.

This appears to be the first major study of its kind.

"So we took a sample, a decent sample of 1.3 million URLs, tiny URLs and looked at how many were malicious, and the result was about 0.06 percent," Chaudhry said.

An amazing low risk especially, Chaudhry says, in the online world.

"I believe that, I just don't want that one time to be you and have it ruin your whole operating system for the day, like, who has time for that," Pino said.

It is always best to know who is sending you a link before clicking -- the best defense is a good offense.

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