Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

Giving New Meaning to 'Spyware'

Filed under
Security

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said that he couldn't define obscenity, but that he knew it when he saw it.

The same has long been the case with spyware. It's not easy to define, but most people know it when parasitic programs suck up resources on their computer and clog their browsers with pop-up ads.

Recognizing that one person's search toolbar is another's spyware, a coalition of consumer groups, ISPs and software companies announced on Tuesday that it has finally come up with a mutually agreeable definition for the internet plague.

Spyware impairs "users' control over material changes that affect their user experience, privacy or system security; use of their system resources, including what programs are installed on their computers; or collection, use and distribution of their personal or otherwise sensitive information," according to the Anti-Spyware Coalition, which includes Microsoft, EarthLink, McAfee and Hewlett-Packard.

The group hopes the definitions will clear the way for anti-spyware legislation and help create a formal, centralized method for companies to dispute or change their software's classification.

"One of the biggest challenges we've had with spyware has been agreeing on what it is," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which has led the group's work. "The anti-spyware community needs a way to quickly and decisively categorize the new programs spawning at exponential rates across the internet."

The lack of standard definitions of spyware and adware has doomed federal and state legislation and hampered collaboration between anti-spyware forces.

In a colloquial sense, spyware is used to refer to a whole range of programs, including unwanted browser toolbars that come bundled with other downloads, surf-tracking software that generates pop-up ads, and software that tries to capture passwords and credit-card numbers.

Software companies like Claria, which distribute their pop-up advertising software by bundling it with free programs such as peer-to-peer software, adamantly deny their products are "spyware." They point out that users can usually find a definition of the programs' effects deep in the user agreement.

It is unclear what effect the new definitions will have on current anti-spyware programs, such as Lavasoft's Ad-Aware and Microsoft's free AntiSpyware tool.

Recently, Microsoft downgraded the default program action for Claria's software from "Remove" to "Ignore," which prompted widespread criticism.

Microsoft responded by saying that it had changed the handling of "Claria software in order to be fair and consistent with how Windows AntiSpyware (beta) handles similar software from other vendors."

Microsoft is in negotiations to buy venture-capital-backed Claria, according to The New York Times.

Ben Edelman, the country's foremost spyware researcher, questions whether the new definitions are simply there so that adware companies can find a way to get a stamp of approval for their software.

"From the perspective of users whose computers are infected, there is nothing hard about (defining spyware)," Edelman said. "If you have adware or spyware on your computer, you want it gone.

"Maybe the toolbar is Mother Theresa, but it's Mother Theresa sitting in your living room uninvited and you want her gone also," Edelman said. "You don't need a committee of 50 smart guys in D.C. sipping ice tea in order to decide that.

"The question is, what do you want to do with it? If you had a consensus of 100 computer-repair technicians or Bill Gates himself, what would they say to do?"

By Ryan Singel
Wired News

More in Tux Machines

4MLinux 20.1 released.

This is a minor maintenance release in the 4MLinux STABLE channel. The release ships with the Linux kernel 4.4.34, which restores PAE support that "magically" disappeared in 4MLinux 20.0 (sorry :-). Additionally, some popular programs (Double Commander, Dropbox, Firefox, Java RE, Opera, PeaZip, Thunderbird, Wine) have been updated, too. Read more

Refracta 8.0 Is a Pint-Sized Powerhouse

Refracta is a somewhat obscure Linux distribution that offers exceptional functionality and stability. Obscurity is not always a bad thing when it comes to Linux distros. You can find some very worthwhile alternatives to your current operating system. Refracta is a big surprise in a small package. Many look-alike desktop distros are difficult to distinguish from run-of-the-mill garden varieties. Others offer new adopters something unique that makes using them fun and productive. Refracta is one of the few full-service Linux distros that makes an easy and more convenient replacement for pocket Linux options such as Puppy Linux. Not all Linux distros that install to a USB drive -- and have the ability to save files and system settings in a persistent mode -- work equally well. Read more

Clear Linux With Mesa 13 Is A Strong Match For Intel Linux Performance

When benchmarking Intel's Clear Linux distribution earlier this year we found its Intel graphics performance to be quite good and slightly faster than other Linux distributions even when Clear was using an older version of Mesa. Now with Clear Linux having switched to Mesa 13, I decided to run some fresh Intel OpenGL benchmarks on it compared to other distributions. Read more

PTS: PHP 7.1 vs. PHP 7.0 vs. HHVM Benchmarks

With today's PHP 7.1 release, performance isn't highlighted as much as language improvements to this first major update to PHP7, but I decided to run some PHP 7.1, PHP 7.0, PHP 5.6, PHP 5.5, and HHVM benchmarks of our open-source Phoronix Test Suite code-base. These self-tests of the Phoronix Test Suite aren't the conventional PHP workload of just a CMS, blog, or other web application that can be cached, etc, but effectively of a PHP CLI application. So keep this in mind when looking at the results and that your mileage may vary depending upon use-case. Read more