Getting a reputation: How SmartScreen looks at URLs

Getting a reputation: How SmartScreen looks at URLs

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I'd like to talk a bit about how we determine the reputation of different URLs and IPs and use this to protect against spam, phishing, and other abuse in Internet Explorer and Windows Live Hotmail.

Let's start with a bit of background. When an abuser–a spammer, phisher, or malware distributer–attacks someone, they have to do two things. First, they deliver a communication (often a spam e-mail), that entices the victim. Second, they "seal the deal" by actually selling the product, stealing the personal information, or installing the malware. (The second part is sometimes referred to as "collecting the conversion.") Dick Craddock and I have talked about some of the steps we take to block abusers' initial communications in previous posts (Fighting the war on spam, Spam, phishing, and other annoyances, and Preventing spam and phishing using e-mail authentication). I'm going to talk about some of the work we do to keep abusers from "sealing the deal."

By far the most common way abusers collect their conversions is using webpages, like the ones shown here:

Sample malware webpage

Sample spam webpage

A number of technical steps go into displaying a webpage, and the reputation systems in SmartScreen® key in on all of them. Here's a quick rundown. Consider the webpage selling medications in the figure above; to visit it you can type the URL into your web browser (although the link is probably dead by now—SmartScreen forces abusers to move quickly):

Obviously SmartScreen's reputation systems learn that particular URLs are bad—that is the first step—but we go much further. Every URL is hosted on a domain. In this case the domain is "". Abusers will often host hundreds or thousands of individually abusive URLs on a single domain. With the right evidence, SmartScreen's reputation system will flag whole domains as abusive.

URLs and domains are concepts that let humans refer to computers. But every computer that's directly on the Internet also has a numeric code, called its IP address, that lets other computers refer to it. For example, might be the IP address of the computer that's running the web server that's hosting the domain. SmartScreen's reputation system tracks these as well and will mark specific web server IP addresses as abusive. SmartScreen will also generalize to other computers "in the neighborhood" of known bad ones. For example, IP addresses are often allocated in blocks, and it's likely that the person who owns also owns and .144 and .145. We use knowledge about the way infrastructure blocks are allocated–into subnets, ASN (Autonomous System Number) blocks, the way message routing works, and more–to figure out what other computers the abusers own, and prevent those abusers from attacking Microsoft customers.

DNS servers are another key to SmartScreen's reputation system. DNS servers translate the URLs that you type into your browser into the IP addresses used by computers. SmartScreen assigns a lower reputation score to DNS servers that seem to know just a little bit too much about abusive domain names.

Making it too expensive to abuse

The point of building reputation on all of these different types of Internet infrastructure is that it costs abusers money. For example, when we find a DNS server that an abuser owns, we give it a bad reputation, and they will then need to invest in a new DNS server. When we find an IP address provider that works with abusers, we proactively find the IPs that they're registering and keep an eye on them. This figure illustrates the increasing costs that abusers incur as we dig deeper into their infrastructure.


Conceptual cost pyramid for Internet abuse

Our goal is to set up a situation where abusers don't make enough money to make it worth their time to attack Microsoft customers, where they find that getting their message in front of our users is hard, and collecting conversions is harder still.

Building and maintaining reputation

Let me now focus in on one specific piece of the reputation system behind SmartScreen: the URL-based reputation system used to fight phishing. Keep in mind that this is just one of over a dozen interrelated systems that work together to help SmartScreen do its job in protecting customers.

Conceptual architectural diagram of phishing reputation

SmartScreen's reputation systems begin with telemetry feeds: reports from end users, data from third parties, traffic from URLs showing up in e-mail, logs from our services, etc. Some of these feeds contain billions of URLs per day. Other feeds contain URLs that a third party has certified to be known phishing sites, and still others contain little more than the fact that an URL has appeared in spam e-mail messages.

Reporting phishing and malware from Internet Explorer

Reporting phishing and spam from Hotmail

But we don't assign a bad reputation based on just a single piece of feedback; any given piece of feedback may be from an abuser, from a competitor, or it may be incorrect. Instead, we use a series of algorithms that combine all the data we have to produce the most accurate and comprehensive reputation database possible. Every input feed is different, and each is handled differently, but in general, we take every URL in every feed and use machine learning to predict the probability that the URL is abusive. At a high level, this involves examining each URL for suspicious substrings (for example, the word "pharmacy" in the URL), looking up the history of the URL–its associated domain, IPs, DNS servers, routers, subnets, ASNs–and combining these into tens of thousands of potentially predictive features for the URL. We then apply models based in machine learning, which pore over these features and separate the abusive URLs from the honest ones.

Most of the time, we are confident enough in the findings of our machine learning engine that we can flag a URL as abusive based on this recommendation alone. Sometimes a URL is suspicious but we're not certain; we send many of these suspicious URLs to our analysts for final classification.

How SmartScreen reputation protects you

Conceptually, the work of SmartScreen's reputation systems results in a huge database of information about abuse on the Internet. We ship information from this database, on a near-real-time basis, into a large number of Microsoft products and services, including: Windows Live Hotmail, Internet Explorer, Bing, AdCenter, Exchange, Microsoft Security Essentials, and more. Each of these services implements some of their safety features based on SmartScreen's reputations.

In the case of Hotmail, the results are used to determine if incoming e-mail messages should be delivered to our customers. Our goal is that Hotmail customers never see messages linking to known phishing, malware, and spam sources. In other scenarios, like when a customer types the URL for a known malware site into the address bar in Internet Explorer, SmartScreen provides a visual warning.

Examples of SmartScreen reputation at work in Internet Explorer

False positives

It's worth noting that any nondeterministic filtering system can make mistakes. And, although they are rare, we take mistakes in SmartScreen very seriously, measuring them, managing them, and responding to them as quickly as possible. For more details on what to do if you think SmartScreen is making a mistake, try these resources:


SmartScreen's reputation systems bring together the telemetry, feedback, and protection of several of Microsoft's major Internet services and tools. As a result, each is safer than they would be if they had to fight abuse alone. For example, in the figure below, each color represents the size of the contribution of each different feed to SmartScreen's reputation database. Notice that no single feed accounts for more than about a quarter of the overall protection.

Feeds in the reputation database

In the long run, we believe that SmartScreen's reputation systems will become so accurate and comprehensive that abusers will stop bothering Microsoft customers and go back to their day jobs. Hey, it's good to have goals, right?

John Scarrow
General Manager Safety Services

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  • felicidades me despejaron una gran duda en su operacion ,y que sucede con las contraseñas que guardan los accesos . cuando se abren estas paginas , como se evita .

  • أي انها فكرة قبل قراءة هذا المنصب قد IE8 أداة رائعة بنيت في

    وانها معومات مفيدة وجميله جدأ



  • i didn't had any clue before reading this post that IE8 has such a great tool built in!

    thanks for the share! nice to know this info..


  • 7flavor
    352 Posts

    The speed of "SmartScreen" is a definite improvement over the old IE7 phishing filter. But its icon isn't shown in IE's status bar after it has finished checking the site and found it to be safe. Clicking the area does show a menu to "Report unsafe website" unfortunately due to multiple columns in IE's status bar, users can't know which is the SmartScreen column quickly enough without clicking in the empty area.

    Also, slightly unrelated to SmartScreen, but relevant to the security topic is IE8's new addition: Domain highlighting. Although it's useful for novice users, greying out the URL has major readability issues which is why domain highlighting should be optional.

  • Terablock
    13 Posts

    Very good post. One of the better I have read on here. Thanks for explaining such a great tool that is built into IE8.

  • >> Summary

    >> For example, in the figure below, each color represents the size of the contribution of each different feed to SmartScreen's reputation database.

    A screenshot supposed to be there... and missing?

  • "SmartScreen will also generalize to other computers "in the neighborhood" of known bad ones."

    Wondering what would happen if there is a remote possibility of the neighbourhood sites being innocent? (Let's say being a rogue one, but is innocent)

    Thanks for the excellent post BTW.

  • Yeh, you guys can say this, because there are always some security issues in Microsoft products. Isn't it?