Monday, November 3, 2008

The dangers of short URLs

It is a minor thing, but it vexes me so...

It isn't news to anyone that clicking random links in email or on web pages can lead to Bad ThingsTM- malware infestation, launching various scripting attacks, or even the dreaded Rick Roll.  But what about things you want to click, but can't see where they lead due to the ubiquitous URL shortening utilities?  The tools are great, especially in platforms like Twitter where you are limited to 140 characters- but you don't know where you are going until you get there, and by then Rick Astley is already singing.  There is a simple answer, enable previews- but every utility doesn't offer the option.  TinyURL offers the options to both create preview URLs and set your preferences to  always show a preview of the full URL.  Their approach isn't perfect, the preview URLs are considerably longer than their regular URLs because they add "preview." to the beginning of the URL, but it is something.  There are some other utilities ( and among others) which allow you to request previews, but you have to do it for every utility and on each computer you use.

There is an experimental add-on for FireFox, PreviewLink, which will allow you to preview links from most shortening utilities, but it is still experimental and therefore requires registering for an AddOn account before you can install it.  I just started using PreviewLink, and it seems promising.

I guess the best bet is to only click obfuscated links on someone else's computer (with the speakers off) until we come up with a better way to solve the problem.