Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Spyware outpaces attempts to foil it

Laws, tech safeguards slow to catch up

By Doug Abrahms
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - When it was time to turn on her computer and check her e-mail, Jean Moore hesitated. Every time she tried, her machine slowed to a crawl.

"I was afraid to turn it on because I was afraid to cause more damage," said Moore of Indian Wells, Calif.

The problem was spyware, software put on your computer, often without your knowledge. The programs can send pop-up ads, install computer viruses or steal passwords to bank accounts.

Like junk e-mail, spyware has grown from an occasional annoyance for computer users to a growing hassle. It now makes up 12 percent of all customer-support calls to Dell Inc., the nation's largest maker of personal computers.

Scans this year of 1.5 million computers by Earthlink Inc., a major Internet service provider, found an average of 28 spyware programs on each computer. Most were harmless, but one in three computers contained malicious software, including ones that hijack home pages to porn sites, monitor keystrokes to collect personal data or redial Internet connections to expensive services that run up long-distance bills.

So far, federal authorities aren't keeping pace with spyware's rapid growth.

Spyware comes in many forms, ranging from those that display simple pop-up ads to those that take control of your computer.

Here are some of the most common types.


• Sends ads once users connect to the Internet. Might also track and relay your Web surfing data.

Browser hijacker

• Changes your default home page, often to a pornography site, every time you log onto the Internet.

Keyboard logger

• Records every keystroke, which can steal passwords and PIN numbers.

Modem hijacker

• Secretly hangs up your Internet connection and redials premium services that can run up your long-distance bill.

Trojan horse

• Embeds programs into your computer to allow hackers to steal data or trash your computer.

A bill introduced by Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., last year would require spyware distributors to clearly notify computer users what information was being collected and increase penalties for malicious spyware. But the legislation has not cleared the House or Senate, and Congress is on break until September.

The Federal Trade Commission, a consumer protection agency, is looking into the problem, but says it is up to consumers to safeguard their computers.

Moore eventually paid $185 to a computer repairman, who had to reinstall her computer's operating software. Moore also added anti-spyware software, but there is no guarantee her computer won't be overwhelmed again.

"It's really annoying to feel like your computer has been invaded," Moore said. "I don't think the general public knows what this is."

Phil Boettge, a software engineer from Lumberton, N.J., was able to remove the spyware himself and add anti-spyware programs to his computer after he started getting eight pop-up ads a minute, some of it for pornography.

But he's not happy about having to work so hard to prevent programs from being installed on his computer without his permission.

"It should be illegal," he said. "We have laws against intrusion and privacy in our homes but not over the phone lines."

It is illegal to plant viruses or illegal programs on the computers of unsuspecting consumers. Software viruses and Trojan horses, a hacker tool secretly installed on computers to gain access, are often written by teenagers looking to cause trouble or crooks looking to steal credit card numbers or other financial data.

A type of software called adware, on the other hand, is technically legal. Consumers usually consent to have it installed in exchange for free software or access to Web sites.

It pops up ads when connected to the Internet and sometimes relays data back about your viewing habits. But it also can make a computer more vulnerable to viruses.

"It's an astonishingly gray area," said Roger Thompson, vice president of PestPatrol Inc., which makes anti-spyware programs. "I think they have a legitimate business, but they haven't gotten the model right - they're pissing off consumers."

PestPatrol started out writing software to block viruses, Trojan horses and other illegal programs. But the company has expanded to block adware as well because it was such a growing nuisance, he said.

"If we don't find some rules and slow them down a bit, at some point your computer will be unusable," Thompson said.

The chief executive of WhenU, one of the nation's largest adware companies, believes the situation should improve within the next year through a combination of legislation, tightening of industry standards and a crackdown on the crooks.

WhenU, whose software is on 30 million computers, offers free software in exchange for watching ads, said Avi Naider, chief executive. The company gets permission, makes it easy to uninstall the software and provides very targeted advertising to consumers, he said.

"Certainly the (Federal Trade Commission) should be going after the rogue group at the bottom of the bunch," Naider said. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of confusion about the topic."

Bono hopes her legislation will clear up some of the confusion and define what is legal. She got involved in the issue after she found spyware on her computer because of music downloaded by her children.

"This is just the beginning," she said. "If we don't stomp it out now, it will just get worse."

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