Eightball and Thundercloud's RANT

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Our Little Rant by Eightball & Thundercloud
From InfoAve Premium Issue #102 - September 30, 2005
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spy vs spySpy Vs Spy

When I was a kid, I used to wait for the latest Mad Magazine to come out. It wasn't so "risqué" in those days - so don't think I was one of "those kind" of kids - National Geographic was what we looked at back then :). Mad Magazine, in those days, was just plain, good-old sick humor. But, being a kid I laughed at it. Anyway, one of the features in "MAD" each month was "Spy vs. Spy". I used to like the cartoons. I can't remember anything else about it. But I can still see the "spies". That's more than most computer users these days. And I've really got my doubts about some of our "anti-spyware" folks too. Not many of them will dare call a spade a spade in our litigious world. So we have to read between the lines to find out what they are actually saying. But not us. We're just crazy enough to keep saying what we know to be true - litigious world or not. You know the old saying about "fools rushing in"?

I understand how hard it is for the average person to discern adware from spyware and adware or spyware from legitimate software. I am involved with this stuff every day and sometimes I really can't tell until I dig deep into the inner sanctum of these places and read the privacy policies, terms-of-service, terms-of-use, and EULAs (End-User-License-Agreements). Sometimes there's a fine line. Speaking of fine lines, someone once said there's a fine line between pity and love. I don't know about that - but there is a fine line between spyware and adware though. Sometimes it is so fine as to be invisible. Many times it is invisible, because there is no line because they are one and the same.

Most folks hear the word "spyware" and that conjures up some Einsteinian-looking ferret sitting in some dark, dank, fusty basement somewhere collecting all kinds of personal information about people on his super-computer and storing it on his thirty-terabyte SQL database. Ah yes! You can see this little weasel using this information to buy yachts, caviar, fruitcakes, and LCD TVs - living high-on-the-hog on YOUR stolen identity. But wait! That's not how it works. Honest it isn't. There are no Einsteinian-looking scalawags (well most likely there's not), and certainly no fusty, smelly basements. More than likely information from your computer is being collected, collated and stored on high-powered machines in modern climate-controlled, computer rooms, ensconced in fancy-smancy glass and steel buildings in California or some other foreign country :-).

Actually, the most common spyware and adware aren't going to steal your identity (Phishing is the way that's usually done and phishing is a totally different subject. And NO! It's not like Bass Fishing with Bob on Saturday mornings on ESPN3 either). Rather, spyware/adware will gather information about you and sell this information to advertisers who pay top-dollar for the opportunity to deliver "targeted ads". Targeted ads are ads that are delivered to those most likely to respond to them. So spying, in its broadest sense, is spying on your behavior not your personal information. I doubt we'd like our neighbors spying on what we do in our homes even if our neighbors weren't trying to get our credit card or social security information. But, these so-called "adware" companies object when someone calls them "spyware" even though they admit that they track your Web browsing and every search you conduct, and then deliver advertising based on that "tracking", all the while expending a a great deal of time and effort explaining to you why you should consider this a "benefit". I don't know about you, but I don't consider another avalanche of ads peering out from my own computer, all of which is based on my own personal use of my computer, a benefit. Heck, if I loved ads that much I could find zillions of Web sites that would give me my daily fix of advertisements in less than ten minutes.

Let's put "tracking" in perspective. What if your neighbor across the street had a telescope and was peering into your house "tracking" you as you went from room to room. Would you say he/she is spying on you?  Sure you would! And it doesn't matter if you were doing anything "wrong" or not. You just don't want your personal behavior monitored by anyone for any reason do you? The companies who make spyware/adware/bundlers and search engine manipulators are quick to point out that they don't collect any personal information from you so they're not really spying. (They all collect your IP address which is personal information although they do not consider it "personal" hmmm.) What's important to consider is - does it matter if my neighbor across the street knows my name or not? If they don't know my name does that make it OK for them to snoop into my private activities with a telescope and follow me from room-to-room? I don't think so, do you?

Well, I'm sorry, but any software program that follows me from site to site and search to search is spyware, regardless of what the developer calls it. If you want to call it adware, that's fine too. We don't like adware any more than spyware. Most of the time there's about as much difference between spyware and adware as there is between a Christmas tree and a pine tree.

One would think that spyware/adware and the like would like to remain sort of silent once they've induced you to install them on your computer. Nah! They like to brag! Show off! Like "Hey! Hey! Look who we've duped! Look how many we've duped! We're pretty cool!" Yes they do. Spyware/Adware/Nefariousware like to tell the world they've duped you. Many of these types of programs advertise and brag about themselves (without your knowledge or consent) in YOUR OWN BROWSER TAGS and email messages. Click here to see your browser tags. I'm betting quite a few of you will be shocked to see who's advertising on your personal browser without your knowledge or permission. Don't you think they should be paying you to advertising for them? Especially, since they're probably ruining your computer at the same time?

And now there are some new kids on the block. These kids bully their way past the adware and spyware monikers by flat-out lying. Well, what else do you want to call it? The term "Lying" is not politically correct? OK, they prevaricate profusely then. Is that more politically correct? These new kids use two techniques: Bundling and Search Engine Manipulation.

Bundling, in the sense we use it, means that in order to use the program(s) you were enticed (by a big fun smiley or some other jumping, colorful graphic) into downloading, is contingent upon you downloading something else. In other words to use one or more of these bundled programs you must leave one (the master) installed or the others won't work. IAC/Ask Jeeves is the most famous of these. In order to have "SmileyCentral" you install a bundle of other programs - about a dozen. And, you must not uninstall "MyWebSearch" (MySearch, MyTotalSeach, MyWaySpeedbar, or whatever other name they hide behind today) or the other programs installed won't work.

Here's the reason why: FunWebProducts (SmileyCentral) makes a killing when you use their "MySearch" or "MyWebSearch" (etc.). They go to great lengths to make advertisements look like search results (although they are legal because in faint letters they do include the words "paid sponsor" or "paid advertisement" on each one although you can quite easily miss this if you're not looking for them). This generates huge income for AskJeeves/IAC because most users understandably don't see the "paid sponsor" notice and click on the advertisements thinking they're search results. Ask Jeeves/IAC gets paid on a per-click basis. So the more mistaken clicks they can generate - the more money they can make. Good for them, bad for you and really bad for the advertiser who is paying for a click that most likely won't result in any kind of a sale. In "real life" this would be called "fraud" and punishable by fines and imprisonment. On the Internet, it's considered profitable.

Once the user realizes that the search result he/she clicked was really an advertisement and lands on a page trying to sell him/her something he/she immediately leaves that page in search of what they were originally searching for, which I'm quite sure wasn't an advertisement. This kind of ruse cheats not only the person searching but the advertiser, who trusts that the clicks to the their site are legitimate and not coming from people who were tricked into clicking the links thinking they were clicking a legitimate search result. It's legal fraud. That's what it is.

Yes, I know that Google's search results (and Yahoo's and MSN's, etc.) also contain advertisements. But these are clearly sectioned off and marked as advertisements, unlike "MyWebSearch" (et.al.) which displays the advertisements first in the same format as the search results (see this picture and read this Rant ).

Oh well, Ask Jeeves/IAC got rich on this sort of thing. Offering "Free Smileys" is a great hook to induce millions into installing the FunWebProducts bundle of 12 or more applications. But there is another negative side of this too and that is all 12 or so of these FunWebProducts start with Windows. Do you know what kind of resource hit this places on a computer at start up. Most people already have too many programs starting with Windows, many of which certainly are not necessary. Many people have printers, scanners, chat programs, email programs, graphics programs and other things starting with Windows which do not need to start with Windows. Those using Windows XP with less than 512 MB of RAM really need to take control of the programs which automatically start with Windows or they will inevitably experience program crashes, program freezes and other symptoms related to "low available resources". And which program will get blamed for this? Not the ones that are sucking up all the memory - but the one that was the most recent one opened - the one "straw" that broke the camel's back. And all the while, the real source of these problems, runs merrily along in the background continuing to use up YOUR system resources.

As anti-spyware/anti-adware programs become more sophisticated, spyware/adware/bundlers and search engine manipulators (like FunWebProducts/SmileyCentral which is also adware) become even more sophisticated and will go to any lengths to entice you to install them. Let's face it - At one time most spyware/adware and the like got on your computer without your knowledge. This is now a big "no-no". Today, spyware/adware vendors realize this sort of underhanded technique doesn't fly anymore. It's too easy to catch and draws the ire of the entire anti-spyware community. Plus the fact it flies in the face of recently enacted anti-spyware laws.

 In the brave, new spyware-aware world, the spyware/adware people need to convince you somehow, in whatever way they can (even lie if they have to). to get you to click the "download" button voluntarily. And millions and millions click do just that every day (sigh). So the spyware/adware vendors become enormously wealthy (billions of dollars await the successful spyware/adware developer) while the people who install this garbage suffer because their computers are bogged down with programs that cause problems, allow an open tunnel between their computers and servers on the Web (so that spyware/adware vendors can install even more spyware/adware under the guise of "updates", "enhancements" and "upgrades"), and allow programs to surreptitiously monitor their computer usage, Web searches, and Web browsing, in order to serve them piping-hot, right-out-of-the-oven, targeted advertising. And the more money these adware/spyware vendors make the more they can spend on advertising to attract more gullible people into their increasingly sophisticated traps. Unfortunately controlling this mess is nearly impossible. The only way it will ever be slowed is by educating the consumer. And this is a difficult task. Not everyone is like you. Not everyone will take the time to read articles about spyware/adware/trickware. They'd rather have the spyware/adware if it gives them something free - no matter what this garbage does to their privacy and their computers.

No one has yet come up with one good general definition of spyware or adware. The game seems to be if you don't install your spyware/adware on computers automatically and the end users have to actually click a link to download the spyware/adware then it's all right. It's cool. No problem. But this leads to trickery that in the "real" world would not be allowed because it would fall under the "false advertising" statutes. These spyware/adware vendors have no alternative in today's anti-spyware/anti-adware climate but to resort to trickery, euphemistic language, and long, rambling privacy policies which attempt to cloak the "bad stuff" in nearly incomprehensible legalese.

The fallout from all of this is that those who really do offer great free programs are always under suspicion. After being told over and over again to be wary of "free" programs, consumers shy away from many fine real "freeware" programs. Spyware/adware and other tricky software vendors have indeed changed the face of the Web forever. As long as they continue to reap obscene amounts of money via their trickery and ruses, they won't stop. They'll get more and more sophisticated and come out with more and more enticing programs to get you to install something they make on your computer so they can continue to make millions, even billions of dollars by using your computer as a billboard for their advertisers or by bending your search results so you're apt to click links you would not normally click so they can reap their rewards.

We've suffered from this thinking. We offer over 5000 free downloads. In the past eighteen months or so, "free" has become more and more synonymous with "spyware", "adware" and the like. I imagine that other sites offering free stuff are suffering too. It's not fair. But then, life's not fair. Those with money and power have always manipulated and lorded over those who don't have power and money. And those with power and money tend to associate with and protect their cronies with power and money, which is why you really have to be careful with anti-spyware/anti-adware programs produced by "household-name" companies. One big company just might not be so apt to flag another big company's product as adware or spyware. One hand washes the other, you know.

In the coming months and years it will be harder to tell what is and what isn't "suspicious". The spyware/adware game is changing because of increased consumer awareness of spyware/adware. This has led to more sophisticated (and underhanded) approaches by the spyware/adware companies to get their junk installed on your computer. Now the game has been transformed from one where spyware/adware were installed quietly, secretly, and without your knowledge or permission, into one where the trick is to fool you into clicking the "download" link voluntarily so they can say, when confronted by lawmakers and anti-spyware gurus - "Wait! Hey, they CHOSE to install our software! They want it!" (Uh huh!) The stakes are high. Millions, even billions of dollars are at stake. You don't matter, you're just a pawn in this very nasty game. These people will stoop to any level to line their pockets. If they ruin your machine or cause it to run like a three-legged turtle in quicksand, oh well.

Advice? I don't have much advice to give. Even as you read this, some spyware/adware company somewhere is devising new, more devious schemes to get their products installed on your computer; to entice you to click that friendly looking "Download" button; to get their multi-tentacled programs installed on your computer; to get their hooks into you and hang on tight hoping you won't discover what they really are - and to make sure you install it voluntarily - even if the information and descriptions they used to get you to install it were nothing but a pack of lies, fabrications and half-truths. And, even if you don't care if someone tracks your Web usage, spies on your searches, and/or manipulates your search results, you should care about the damaging drain these sort of programs place on one of your computer's most important assets - your available system resources. Lack of available system resources can make your computer run slowly - even freeze-up;  it can cause other innocent programs to crash (making you think that these innocent programs are to blame for the crashes). We all want nice free things. I mean who doesn't like "free". I do, you do, we all do. And, there are many nice free things still around. But spyware/adware and other such trickware are not nice free things and almost all of them will eventually lead to such poor performance that a complete format and reinstallation of Windows to get your computer running normally again. And if you pay someone to format your computer and reinstall windows it will cost you somewhere between $100 and $200.00. And that makes these spyware/adware/trickware laden "free" programs not so free after all, doesn't it?

My advice to you? Stay informed, educate yourself, keep up with the latest happenings on the Web, use your good old common sense and most of the time you'll be able to tell the tricks from the treats.

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