Eightball and Thundercloud's RANT

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Our Little Rant by Eightball & Thundercloud
From InfoAve Premium Issue #124 - March 3, 2006

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Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum

As most of you know, Hotbar was sued by Symantec - the company that makes Norton products. Symantec called Hotbar "Adware" and Hotbar didn't like it much and told Symantec about it. Symantec sued Hotbar, not for money, but for the right to call Hotbar "adware". Recently, Symantec won (out of court) and now has the right to call Hotbar "adware". So I guess that means that after all our problems with Hotbar, we can now officially call Hotbar "adware" too.

I admit, we did chortle a little when we saw that Symantec labeled Hotbar "low risk" adware. Apparently, Symantec doesn't really want to offend anyone and likes its seat on the fence between politically correct and giving the appearance that Symantec's products provide adequate protection. And, we really got a chuckle out of Hotbar's response. Hotbar's president said that Hotbar was "upstanding" adware. Here's the quote from Oren Dovronsky that we found humorous - "...The difference between us and other spyware/adware companies is that the other programs are downloaded onto the computer without the user knowing, ...". Hmmm...

Before we go on, we want to say that this is not an article about Hotbar. It's about the politically correct crowd and the terms "adware" and "spyware" as they apply to today's Internet. It's the old "tweedle dee / tweedle dum" - "frick and frack" thing come back to haunt us all. I swear!

A Brief History of Adware

The basic concept of adware was a good one: I provide you a nice program and you allow me to show you advertisements. And the first adware programs did exactly that. They showed you rotating banners while the program was running and if you clicked the banners they took you to whatever site for which that banner was advertising. Banners were included with the program and we're not "targeted" and were not "beamed" from the Web. In other words, these banners were not based on your private behavior - such as what you search for or your browsing habits.

It didn't take long before someone realized the potential of adware and began building in the capacity to track your browsing and search habits and phoning home to retrieve advertisements based on your personal and private behavior. And now it's grown to be a billion dollar business.

The idea that adware and spyware are distinctly different comes from the old model of adware. In the old model your personal behavior was not tracked and advertisements were not based on this tracking of your private movements.

Spyware and Adware Are More Similar Than Different

The term spyware is a very volatile term. It causes developers of adware to go into wild tizzies. It invokes images of cloak and dagger methods of gathering up your personal information. It even brings to mind secret software hidden on your computer that is scouring for credit card and bank account numbers and sending them off into cyberspace where evil miscreants await to plunder your bank accounts and credit cards. And, no doubt, the more sinister spyware applications, such as keyloggers, can indeed steal valuable passwords and account information from you without your knowledge or permission.

Most adware developers try to make you believe that the difference between their adware programs and the nasty spyware programs floating around, is that spyware installs secretly and without your knowledge or permission. While this may be true in some cases, generally adware and spyware programs install because you clicked a link to install it. According to adware and spyware makers, the fact that you might not have been making a fully informed choice when you downloaded these products makes no difference. If an adware or spyware product hides important information about how they will collect data about your browsing and search habits and display advertising based on those habits, deep on page seven of a twelve page "EULA" or bury the goodies three-quarters of the way through a privacy policy written in convoluted, euphemistic legalese - it's OK. You should have read it and didn't. You made the conscious choice to download their products and therefore they have the right to do whatever they want because EULAs are legally binding.

But the differences between adware and most common spyware are very difficult to discern. The most common adware and spyware being distributed on the internet share more similarities than differences. For my money, most adware is spyware and most spyware is adware. They both collect personal and private information from your computer and sell it to advertisers. The advertising displayed within spyware and adware applications is targeted and based on your personal behavior.

Only the nastiest and most pernicious of spyware differs by any great degree from most adware.

If Adware Existed In The Real World

Can you imagine someone snooping around in your garbage can to see what products you buy most often? Can you imagine them surreptitiously snooping to see if you buy Campbell's Pork & Beans or Bush's beans.

They find you like "not from concentrate" orange juice and that you are a cookie junkie -all by rooting through your garbage.

Maybe it's all legal too. You might have given them permission to go through your garbage when you signed that fifteen page agreement with the garbage collection company.

Just picture someone coming to your door with coupons for "Alex's Beans", "Big O's Not From Concentrate Orange Juice" and oodles of coupons for cookies of all kinds.  You'd wonder how they knew what you liked. It's simple. The know what you like because they snooped through your garbage.  Your personal behavior and habits have been scrutinized and used to provide you with targeted advertising.

Some of you might not object to this sort of snooping. But, when you break it down, it is basically wrong if the person being spied upon is not consciously aware of it. If adware programs notified you each time you turned on your computer that they were going to be tracking your behavior, browsing habits and searches while you were online - how many of you would actually click "OK Continue" ? How many of you would click "Cancel and Uninstall These Programs" ?

And if allowing your own personal habits to be tracked and collated isn't bad enough, most adware programs leave a conduit open between your computer and the site of the adware program. Many adware programs give the impression that this is done so "updates" can be installed. But, we've discovered that updates often include new adware programs the developer has authored, maybe untested and unstable programs that will be piped to and installed on your computer without your knowledge or permission. This tampering with your computer is all perfectly legal because by installing the initial adware or spyware program you've agreed to allow the developers to do this.

It's no wonder that one of the biggest causes of major problems with personal computers these days are adware and spyware applications; many of which were installed by the owner's request. It's hard to believe that people would install any of these types of applications if they were fully aware of what was in the product's EULA and cognizant of the types of activities these programs conduct while installed.

And, it's a fact that some (if not most) adware and spyware programs, install many other programs besides the one you actually wanted. Sometimes a dozen or more unrelated programs are installed when you click the "Download Now" button. And most of the time all of these applications will start with Windows and drain precious resources while they continually run, sometimes unnoticed, in the background.

So it's not just the privacy issues that make adware and spyware bad choices; leaving an open conduit between adware and spyware developer's sites on the internet and your computer leaves you open more adware and spyware applications. Consciously installing one application and unknowingly installing a dozen more can harm your computer or slow it to an annoying crawl.

If adware programs were the innocent programs of their beginnings then no one would have to be particularly concerned about them. But, most of the adware available on the Web today isn't based on the innocuous concept of adware put forth all those years ago; today's adware concept makes it very hard to differentiate it from the spyware that everyone, even adware developers, claim to loathe.

In my opinion companies like Symantec (aptly named), the maker of Norton products, is not doing their customers a fair service by classifying adware as "low risk", "medium risk" and "high risk". They're playing the semantics game; trying to appear politically correct.

Can you imagine the criminal justice system using the same technique? We would have "low risk" thieves, "low risk" embezzlers, and "low risk" con artists. Maybe I'm out-of-the-loop, but I cannot understand the "low risk", "medium risk" "high risk" appellations. Is a low risk thief a better employee than a medium risk thief? If you were the employer would you feel comfortable with either one?

Despite the current climate on the Web of trying not to offend anyone, in reality the difference between adware and the most common spyware is about the same as the difference between "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum".

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