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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Malware: Spyware And Adware

Malware is any program designed to do harm, though sometimes what's considered harmful is a bit vague. Viruses, Trojans, spyware, adware, pop-ups, even spam and more have all qualified. Sometimes, though, one man's junk is another man's treasure.

Adware

Adware actually has two flavors - software supported with advertising, or a more malicious sort. The first could be a useful utility released free of charge but using advertising to generate revenue to support development - similar to TV commercials. You're not required to watch, but if you do you get ads along with content. Often this type of software is also available in ad-free form for a modest price.

The other, more malicious, type monitors your browsing habits and delivers targeted advertising. This type of software may be considered a type of spyware, especially if it's installed without your knowledge and consent. When does adware becomes spyware? A gray area. Some software vendors claim that disclosing the inclusion of this type of software in the user agreement grants legal consent for its installation. Most users, obviously, don't read the fine print, which is full of legal jargon and unattractively formatted.

Spyware

Spyware can have a more insidious meaning, however. This can refer to software which does much more than simply monitor a user's browsing habits. It can also redirect your browser to advertising sites.

This type is almost always installed without the user's consent or knowledge. It may be hidden in another program or arrive as the payload of a worm or virus. It's also illegal in many countries. In the U.S. the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) has indicted, and in some cases convicted, several purveyors.

Some software vendors require the user to install spyware as part of a package. File sharing utilities like Kazaa or BearShare are notorious for this practice. Its inclusion is declared in the user agreement but users don't have the option of not installing it - if they want the main program they have to install the spyware as well. Annoying, but legal.

The spyware installed with these, and many other, programs gather information about web browsing habits so that targeted advertising can be delivered to the user. 'Targeted' advertising is designed to be presented to specific groups, selected by analyzing their buying or browsing habits. Selections are made by discovering gender, age, frequently visited sites or by other criteria.

Spyware vendors argue that it doesn't collect specific personal information and there's an active controversy over whether it constitutes legitimate market analysis or privacy violation.

Most users find it annoying at best and intrusive in the main. Advertisers claim it's the best way to deliver products and services to potential new customers who may actually end up wanting what's offered. Legally, they assert, it's just another form of free speech. Users retort that the advertisers' free speech doesn't reach to their browser or e-mail Inbox.

The argument isn't likely to be settled soon.