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Social networking sites are behind a surge in viruses, spyware and other "nasty stuff", according to web security firm ScanSafe's monthly report.

According to an analysis of more than 5bn web requests in July, ScanSafe found that, on average, up to one in 600 profile pages on social networking sites hosted some form of malware.

The company also reported that the use of social networking sites, often assumed to be popular only among teens, accounted for approximately one per cent of all internet use in the workplace.

"Social networking sites have been newsworthy because of the concern over our children's safety, but beyond unsafe contact with harmful adults, these sites are an emerging and potentially ripe threat vector that can expose children to harmful software," ScanSafe chief executive and co-founder Eldar Tuvey said. "Users are frequently subject to unwanted spyware and adware that can compromise their PCs, track online behaviour and degrade PC performance."

The majority of malware identified by ScanSafe was spyware and adware, and ranged from the more benign programmes that track usage to difficult-to-remove spyware which may redirect a user to dodgy websites.

Social networking sites like Facebook, which typically use a university or college email address to verify a user's identity, and LinkedIn, a site used for business networking, tended to be more secure than "open" social networking sites, according to ScanSafe.

The research also revealed the presence of referrals to adult-themed dating sites on social network sites popular with teens.

"The presence of adult-oriented adware is disturbing, not only because much of it is inappropriate content for minors, but because underage users may not be in a position to consent to installing adware or understand the end-user licence agreement," Tuvey said.

In addition to the statistics on social networking sites, ScanSafe reported that overall spyware increased 19 per cent in July while web viruses decreased 14 per cent. Web viruses identified and blocked by ScanSafe before a virus' signature (i.e. the code which antivirus software uses to identify it) became available accounted for nearly 13 per cent of all web viruses blocked by the company in July.

Tuvey commented that there may be some seasonality to web viruses and spyware but the number of unidentified viruses remains relatively constant.

The ScanSafe Global Threat Centre processed more than five billion web requests in July, and reported that it blocked 238 unique viruses - 75 of which were new or unique viruses.

Copyright © 2006, ENN

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