McAfee's Attempt to Censor Serendipity

McAfee provides a product called SiteAdvisor which claims to advise websurfers as to the security (or alleged security) of websites. This product has close to zero credibility, as we will now show. For the last few years this Serendipity website has always received a green rating. Suddenly, on September 29, 2010, this site was rated red (just a few hours after this message was posted to the web).

On December 2, 2010, or shortly before, McAfee's SiteAdvisor restored Serendipity's rating to green. However, this page will remain, as a reminder to McAfee that they can't get away with using their bogus "TrustedSource web reputation analysis" to attempt to censor websites.

Mousing over the icon and clicking on the 'Read site report' link brings up the warning shown at right. "Use with extreme caution." (They should add, "This site may change your thinking.") That is certainly alarming, and sufficient to cause many people to stop right there.

But, contradicting McAfee's evaluation, Norton Safe Web reports no problem with this site. And Checkpoint Technologies' ZoneAlarm also says this site is safe. (Click on the images at left and right for more from these reports.)

So why has McAfee issued a red alert for Serendipity? When we look at the rest of the site report (see image below) we find no evidence of any "security risks". Since Norton Safe Web and ZoneAlarm both report zero security risks, and SiteAdvisor itself identifies no specific security risks (just asserting on no discernible basis that there are "potential" security risks) it would appear that McAfee's red alert cannot be taken seriously, and that McAfee's credibility in rating websites is close to zero.

Note that McAfee's site report says: "In our [download] tests, we found downloads on this site were free of adware, spyware, and other potentially unwanted programs." (Emphasis added.) And: "When we visited this site, we found that most of its links are to sites which are safe or have only minor safety/annoyance issues." (Emphasis added) Note also that Serendipity did not fail any of McAfee's email tests, and no "annoyances" are listed. Also there are no reports of spam, adware, spyware, viruses, browser exploits, popups, phishing or other scams or bad shopping experiences.

When we view the detailed analyses of the ZIP files listed, such as this one:

we find that all have a "nuisance score" of zero. In other words, there were no problems with any of the files that McAfee tested.

So why has McAfee hit Serendipity with a red alert?

When one clicks on the "What is TrustedSource™" link in the warning shown above, this page appears, in which we read:

Web reputation McAfee tests websites for web reputation using the TrustedSource™ system. This system collects security data from tens of millions of sensors located in more than 120 countries. McAfee's proprietary technology analyzes traffic and linking patterns, website behavior, content analysis, site registration and hosting, to develop an overall reputation rating for the website.

No further explanation is given. And McAfee does not define "web reputation" or "overall reputation rating". These terms can apparently mean anything McAfee wants them to mean. McAfee attempts to blind us with techno-jargon — "millions of sensors", "proprietary technology", "analyzes traffic and linking patterns" — so as to fool us into believing that something real is being measured. But how can you ascertain a website's "reputation" except by asking people what they think of it? And for sure a lot of people don't like Serendipity, because it says clearly things that they would rather not hear, or would rather not allow others to hear, such as that the question of what actually happened on 9/11 has never been properly answered.

So McAfee's red-alerting of Serendipity is most plausibly explained as an attempt to dissuade web surfers from reading this site. In other words, it is an attempt at censorship. There is no security problem with this site, just a problem for some people who don't want you to read what's on it.

Censorship has a long and ugly history. One of the earliest cases was that of Socrates, who was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and of impiety. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. He might have gone into exile to avoid the sentence, but instead chose death. How was he alleged to have "corrupted" the youth of Athens and to have commited "impiety"? Basically, by asking questions (questions which made others think), by drawing attention to hypocrisy and by his many critical comments regarding the Athenian authorities and the established religion. The citizens of Athens did not want to hear what he had to say and imposed their censorship of his views in an extreme form: sentence of death.

Censorship as we understand it now goes back to the Romans. Censors were elected in pairs by the soldiers of Rome. Originally their duties were mainly to take a census of the population, but gradually they took on more functions, one of these being the maintenance of public morals. An action which was considered to be injurious to the public morals could be the subject of an edict issued by a censor (thus "censored") and anyone acting in that way would be branded with a "censorial mark" — the nota censoria. McAfee's "censorial mark" is their red alert icon (new version at right). The Roman censors were obliged, when censoring a citizen, to state the reason for their action. McAfee censors websites without giving any reason, claiming only that it "analyzes traffic and linking patterns, website behavior, content analysis, site registration and hosting, to develop an overall reputation rating for the website", but for any particular website (such as this one) showing no problem with any downloadable file, no failure of any specific test, no "annoyance" and having no bad report, McAfee provides no reason justifying its "censorial mark" beyond its vague techno-speak. This allows it to censor any website it wishes to.

On October 25, 2010, I sent this message to McAfee. I never received a reply.

We would like to hear of other websites which have been red-alerted by McAfee despite showing no problems with downloadable files, etc. Reports of such websites can be made via our comments form.

So far (2010-12-28) we have found one other website which has been censored by McAfee with a red alert even though:

  1. McAfee's SiteAdvisor Report provides no evidence of any problem with the site.
  2. Norton Safe Web reports that the site is OK.
  3. Zone Alarm's Checkpoint reports that the site contains no known risks.

Click on the Norton Safe Web link to confirm that the Burma Issues website is safe to visit, then go to Shame on McAfee! for censoring a website whose purpose is to draw attention to the oppression of non-Burmese ethnic nations (such as the Karen and the Shan) by the Burmese government.

Relevant links:

A copy of the Serendipity website is available on CD-ROM.  Details here.

Censorship Serendipity Home Page