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The Therapy Sessions
Thursday, June 10, 2004
 

The new evil


Spyware
VIRUSES and spam get all the attention, but there is another, less visible, threat to internet users that may already be lurking on your computer without your knowledge. “Spyware”, as it is known, is software that sneaks on to your PC, tracks your online activities, and occasionally splashes pop-up advertisements across the screen. It is more than a nuisance: such software is, in effect, hijacking your PC, monitoring your internet use and unilaterally opening browser windows. Some spyware also harvests personal information, such as your e-mail address and location—or even your credit-card details....

The rapid growth of spyware over the past year, and the legal ambiguity surrounding it, has brought it to the attention of regulators and lawyers in America and Europe. This month, a court in Utah will hear a case challenging the first state law that would ban it. Unless the software is stamped out, it could do to the web what spam has done to e-mail: create an annoyance of such magnitude that the internet may become less useful.

The practice is widespread. Spyware that monitors a user's online activities and triggers advertisements in response is present on over 4% of computers, according to one study. The top three spyware firms claim their software is installed on around 100m PCs. Yet most users are unaware it is there. That is because the software is usually installed in a “bundle” with other programs, such as the peer-to-peer file-trading software with which many internet users swap music. Another kind of spyware automatically installs itself when a user merely visits a particular site, a trick known as “drive-by downloading”. Having sneaked on to a PC, spyware applications can severely degrade its performance. Mostly, it is very difficult to remove; some programs are even designed to make removal as hard as possible....

...The analogy with spam is informative. If legislators had acted sooner, it might have been possible to prevent spam from spiralling out of control. Does that suggest that legislation against spyware will also prove ineffective? Not necessarily, because the people behind spyware are a centralised and traceable group of companies, unlike spammers. Lawmakers have an opportunity to nip spyware in the bud, and help to ensure the integrity of the internet. They should take it.

Let's hope they do. This shit is ruining the internet.








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