Personal web spaces on MySpace, videos on YouTube, and blogs - community sites hosting user-created content - have become increasingly popular.
While the web has always been about publishing digital information, the stunning popularity of hubs for content created by the audience has attracted more people to the world of quick-and-easy publishing, but the trend has some security experts worried.
In November, security firm Websense alerted internet users over a handful of MySpace pages hosting videos that, when played, attempted to install adware on a viewer's system. The videos used the digital rights management facilities built into Windows Media player to start installing the software, earning the fraudster money as an affiliate of adware purveyor Zango.
The incident underscores that such content should not be trusted, said Dan Hubbard, senior director for security and technology research at Websense. As more internet companies develop tools for turning their audience into the prime source of content, online fraudsters and data thieves are looking to exploit the systems to reach mainstream audiences, he said.
"User created content is definitely a big security shift," Hubbard said. "I don't even think the companies have really thought about how to control things that they don't have (direct) control over."
The number of incidents involving user-created content hubs is increasing. Microsoft researchers have found that a loose collection of websites, or an "exploit net", play host to malicious content and use comment spam to attract potential victims. And social networking sites are at the centre of the storm. For example, a large number of the intermediary sites, as many as 17,000, are hosted on Google's Blogger service.
The internet search giant has its eye set on services that turn visitors into content creators. With Google's $1.6bn purchase of YouTube, the popularity of user-created content hubs will only rise. Giving the audience the tools to turn their creative energies into attractive content is a key piece of that popularity puzzle, but the sites need to weigh such decisions against the security implications, said Christopher Boyd, director of malware research at messaging security firm FaceTime Communications.
"It's a huge problem," Boyd said in an email interview with SecurityFocus. "These sites rely on an anything goes approach to attract users, with pretty much everything you could think of switched on for the user to customise."
And that makes the sites a potentially fertile ground for malicious coders and online fraudsters, he said.
MySpace failed to comment on the issues after being contacted numerous times.