Imagine you are sitting in your living room watching television. Suddenly a stranger walks in and changes the station. When you throw them out, they prop your door open to let three more channel changers sneak in. If you call the police, they claim brutality and say their rights are being violated, and the police leave. While they are in your house, they steal your personal information, go through your medicine cabinet, adjust all the settings on your television, and open all your blinds permanently so everyone can see your personal business. This isn’t a scene from the Cat in the Hat. This is what millions of internet users face on a daily basis. These intruders are adware, spyware and malware. And unlike Thing 1 and Thing 2, they don’t put everything back neatly before they leave.
Microsoft defines spyware as “a general term used for software that performs certain behaviors such as advertising, collecting personal information, or changing the configuration of your computer, generally without appropriately obtaining your consent” (www.microsoft.com). There is a wide array of effects from spyware, also called pests. Users can be the victims of annoying pop-up windows, which while annoying and disruptive may be the least of your worries. Some literally hijack your web browser and force you to other websites, making a simple web search nearly impossible. The most nefarious of spyware can transmit personal or private information, they can allow for the theft of passwords and credit card information, some use your computer modem to make expensive long distance or 900 number calls, finally others can render your computer totally useless.
Many users are not aware they are downloading these pests. They come hidden in free software, music and online games. Others are attached in emails sometimes these emails are intentionally sent but often these softwares will steal access to a person’s email and send themselves without the user’s knowledge or consent. Sometimes simply visiting a web site can infest your computer. While acquiring these pests can be relatively simple, ridding yourself can be an exercise in futility. These pests hide, and can be almost impossible to delete. Some have what I call a spawner, which will replicate the file as soon as it is deleted. While I have not found concrete proof of this, I have a theory that may of these files create more malicious files when deleted. For example, an attempt to delete a pop-up pest may result in creation of a hijacker. When you attempt to delete the hijacker, you may find your computer useless.
The most disturbing aspect of spyware is that a great majority of these applications are not developed by anti-social hackers who derive pleasure by creating havoc. Many of these programs are developed and sold by legitimate companies. Public companies that are traded on the stock exchanges, listed with Dun & Bradstreet and operate legally. As a matter of fact many of the distributors of adware are bringing suit against companies that create anti-adware programs. “And the argument used by adware producers to defend their “creations” is that they only provide a “smart advertising” concept. Actually, these producers have summoned several times anti-virus companies not to rate adware and spyware in the same way and not to talk about adware products as being dangerous” (found on http://news.softpedia.com). They also argue that users knowingly and willingly accept these programs by clicking yes on a user agreement when downloading free programs. While the legalities of some of this software remains under debate in our court system, the ethics of such software requires no debate.
The developers exploit a legal loophole in their user agreement for software. Clive Thompson explains “The software asks us to click and approve a ponderously long ‘end user license agreement.’ Somewhere inside that license the company explains, sotto voce, that the tool will monitor your surfing, or even control your computer remotely. Any smart computer user would never agree to such a thing.” He admits that he who “writes about technology for a living” does not read the agreements. With the complexity of computer programs, and the number of files required to run even the simplest program, it is nearly impossible for the average user to explore and understand every file associated with a program. Even if a sophisticated user had the desire to do so “It’s illegal to reverse engineer the source code of commercial software to find out how it works.” Therefore, how can any user actually give informed consent? Is fair and ethical to bury this information and expect the user to comprehend the dangers? In any other industry the answer would be a resounding no. This would be like a pharmaceutical firm imbedding a mind controlling substance into a medication and using the defense that the user should have knowledge of microbiology before taking the medication.
The terminology of the agreement should also be brought under question. Business communication courses teach us that it is unethical to use technical words and terminology that will go over the average reader’s head. Ph.D. candidate and professional consultant Benjamin Edleman has spent countless hours analyzing these agreements. The following information is available as a result of his efforts. The file-sharing program Kazaa asks the user to agree to a licensing agreement that is over 22,000 words long. This agreement is only viewable by clicking on a number of miniscule links. In all there are over 180 pages of text. Buried on page 19 is a mention of gambling site icons that the user must agree to place on their desktop. On another page is a small mention of the software Altnet which is bundled with Kazaa for the user to understand Altnet and its functions, they much open an additional link and comprehend another 71 pages of text. Once the user agrees to Kazaa and Altnet, they are then shown a small portion of Claria license. “The Claria license is 5,918 words long and generally fits only nine lines per screen, therefore taking 63 on-screen pages to view in fullÃ¢Â?Â¦ In eight instances in the document, Claria references a total of five external documents, purportedly each ‘incorporated herein by reference.’ In each instance, Claria references these external documents via mere URLs, not active hyperlinks” (found on http://www.benedelman.org/). Many of these URLs have erroneous spaces rendering them invalid unless the user corrects the error. What makes the agreements appear more unethical is the complete absence of the terms pop-up, spyware. Also buried within the agreement is the phrase “You agree that you will not use, or encourage others to use, any unauthorized means for the removal of the GAIN AdServer, or any GAIN-Supported Software from a computer.” Buried under legal jargon, and after following numerous new URLs and thousands of words, that the average user does not have the time, patience or technical savvy to comprehend is a legal and binding agreement that states you will not use a spyware removal tool to delete this software.
These adware distributors have even gone as far as to file suit against anti-spyware manufacturers such as pest patrol and Symantec stating that removal of their software is a direct violation of the user agreement and is therefore illegal. Another company accused of adware distribution is “company called 180solutions (who) makes search-assistance software called Zango that shows ads to users. Within the past month, the company sent letters to several anti-spyware vendors demanding that they drop 180solutions from their spyware databases” (found on www.networkworld.com)
In essence these companies are making the claim that the user has no rights. If they mistakenly install the software, they have no recourse and are legally bound to retain the software on the computer for eternity. They are exploiting the user, the computer and the law. Computer users are suffering loss of time, productivity, and money at the hands of these software distributors. Advertisers are also victims of these companies. A company may pay for placement or advertisement on a web page only to have traffic diverted by adware software. The existence of adware is an example of how the law has not kept up with technology. These manufactures may hide behind the law, but just as slum lords and sweatshop owners in the past, they will find that their unethical practices will soon gain the attention of lawmakers and they will be held accountable for their actions.
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