Sunday, April 03, 2005

I Have a Dream

And my dream is that the world be rid of spyware.

I'm out on a mission a stolen car mission. And that mission is going to be to extract my pound of flesh from the bastards who are responsible for unethically loading unwanted, harmful software onto all of our computers. I want to put a stop to it. In fact, I don't think I have ever felt so strongly about an issue that I've followed through on a true advocacy campaign. But in the coming weeks and months, I will be embarking on just such a campaign here and elsewhere. Spyware is different. This time it's personal.


Within days of Paul's gracious invitation to post on My Dogs, I came down with a despicable form of Internet syphilis so severe that my laptop had to be taken to a local computer chop-shop for $150 worth of work. In all, I was without my computer for nearly seven days. While that is unfortunate, it wasn't the first time I found myself beset by such pain and woe. Almost precisely one year ago I found myself similarly afflicted; to the point where my machine was practically unusable. That infestation cost me $300 and 4 days. This despite dutiful use of programs such as Ad-Aware, Spybot, McAfee and Norton to prevent such difficulties. And even upon getting my machine back this time, it's still not 100%.

As a result, I have finally given up on my Vaio laptop and have purchased a Dell desktop. Roughly $1000. In all, that is $1450 and 11 days of lost productivity in just under one calendar year. This doesn't even include the outright RAGE I have experienced. In legal parlance, that is what is known as a 'material harm.' And it is all the result of spyware.

But it isn't just me. According to Informationweek the most common spyware, GAIN, is currently resident on 38.4 million PCs. And GAIN, for example, targets ESPN users with roughly 36 different pop-up ads. ESPN is incidentally where I contracted my most recent bout of compu-gunk. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. I will be quantifying the true extent of the problem and investigating GAIN in more detail in future installments, but what's important for now is to understand the ubiquity of spyware. Odds are extremely high that you are infected with it right now. You may not know it. But you better believe it knows you. What is also important is to understand that this is not just the domain of underfunded, shadowy, niche players. This is also a world in which well-known companies such as Yahoo!, 1-800 Flowers, Orbitz, Chase, Verizon, Vonage, and even my new best friend, Dell, are represented and often, even complicit. But I will address that in due time.

So what is spyware you ask? Well that is a vexing question and one which is currently exasperating Congress and legitimate technology concerns. Spyware is software which uses aggressive installation practices that exploit browser vulnerabilities to embed itself on our hard-drives. Often this is done without our explicit knowledge. It preys on the lack of savvy that many of us have when it comes to computer technology.

And the harms are manifold.

They can range from hijacking our browsers to unilaterally altering browser settings to accept any kind of future code they want to drop on a hard-drive. They can slow system performance and track our every move online for sale to advertisers. They can even include the logging of keystrokes. In other words, monitoring every word you write in Word or logging credit card numbers during e-commerce transactions.

Bottom line: unethical.

It is currently legal because Congress has not yet addressed this matter. California Republican Mary Bono has been the most strident advocate for legislation, but as yet no bills have been passed. The major issue is how best to define the gray-ish world of spyware. In future posts, I will expand on this notion while also addressing Congress' efforts regarding this blight on humanity. Moreover, I will provide information on what we can all do to influence efforts to protect our technology investments, our data and our sanity.

In sum, as our computers and data become increasingly central to every aspect of our lives, spyware represents a real threat to each of us. It represents a financial threat, a data integrity threat and a privacy threat. While viruses have tended to be our greatest concerns when it comes to our PCs, I would argue that more public and government attention needs to be focused on the growing and insidious problem of spyware.

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