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Defcon A well-known researcher specializing in website security has strongly criticized safety on Google, arguing the world's biggest search engine needlessly puts its millions of users at risk.

"Google is and will be and always has been vulnerable," Robert Hansen, CEO of secTheory, told a standing-room-only audience at the Defcon security conference in Las Vegas. "They haven't been open with consumers. Ultimately, this all comes down the the fact that they just want to track you guys."

At issue is Google's policy of hosting untested third-party applications that users can automatically embed into personalized Google home pages. During a talk titled "Xploiting Google Gadgets: Gmalware & Beyond," Hansen and fellow researcher Tom Stracener laid out a variety of attacks that can be unleashed using the programs.

The most devastating is the ability of Google gadgets to immediately redirect victims who log into iGoogle.com to a page under the control of an attacker. This creates a phishing hazard, particularly for less tech-savvy users who don't know to check the browser bar. Even if they do, the bar shows up at gmodules.com, an address many mistakenly believe is safe because it is maintained by Google.

Hansen, who frequently goes by the moniker Rsnake, said he discussed the vulnerability with Google security engineers, and they told him the redirection was a feature rather than a flaw.

Google gadgets make other attacks possible, including: the ability to:

  • carry out port scanning on a victim's internal network to conduct surveillance
  • use cross-site request forgery techniques to force victim PCs to follow links to malicious sites (for instance, those that host child pornography) and
  • cause a victim's browser to access a home router and change domain name system server addresses or other sensitive settings.

Hansen and Stracener acknowledged that in-the-wild attacks that use Google gadgets are rare, but they said that's likely to change.

"Once money actually starts flowing through, once the financial incentive for malware exists, then you're going to start seeing more of this type of thing pop up," Stracener said.

Google representatives didn't respond to an email requesting comment for this story. They told the Associated Press that the company regularly scans gadgets for malicious code, and in the "very rare" occasions bad applications are found, they are immediately quarantined.

The speakers took strong exception to Google's claim. They've had several proof-of-concept gadgets hosted for months on Google, and so far they've never been removed, they said. ®

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