Web surfers battling "spyware" face a new problem: so-called spyware-killing programs that install the same kind of unwanted advertising software they promise to erase.
Millions of computers have been hit in recent years by ads and PC-monitoring software that comes bundled with popular free downloads, notably music-swapping programs. The problem has attracted dozens of companies seeking to profit by promising to root out the offending software. But some software makers are exploiting the situation, critics allege, turning demand for antispyware software into a launch pad for new spyware attacks.
A small army of angry Web users has set up a network of Web sites where they post reports of antispyware programs said to prey on consumers by installing offending files. Some of these charges could get a hearing soon, as public-interest group The Center for Democracy & Technology plans to file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission against specific companies.
"If people feel as though their privacy has been violated by a company that claims to be protecting them, that clearly is an unfair and deceptive practice," said Ari Schwartz, an associate director of Washington-based CDT. "You would think that an antispyware company would hold itself up to the highest standards."
The boom in spyware, adware and other PC hijackers has led to increasing calls for regulation from lawmakers, including presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and from public-interest groups.
Many software makers have turned to advertising as a way to make money from consumers who are reluctant to purchase programs. The same approach has been taken by some antispyware companies, even though they promise that their products will root out unwanted advertising from others. But the failure of some to disclose their practices has raised the greatest outcry.
Like viruses, adware and spyware programs can sneak into a user's computer hard drive with little or no warning and can hide their tracks in ways that make it difficult for even the most sophisticated computer users to find and permanently delete.
As adware and spyware have spread, demand for applications that clean up infected hard drives has grown, drawing a large group of competitors eager to profit. More than 50 programs claiming to erase adware and spyware are available online, and many of these are offered as free downloads. Several major Internet service providers, including EarthLink and America Online, have also moved to provide spyware-removal applications to their subscribers.
But as these programs proliferate, some software makers face mounting criticism that their products install the very things they promise to defend against. Some antispyware companies have pointed fingers at rivals and have added competing programs to their list of applications that contain adware or spyware. These lists are used to identify and sweep out offending software during antispyware scans.
Keeping track of spyware
One such tool facing allegations of abuse is SpyBan, an antispyware program that has been downloaded some 44,000 times in the last four months, according to Download.com, a software download site owned by CNET Networks, the publisher of News.com. Download.com removed the software this week, noting that SpyBan had failed to disclose and explain all the software components included in its installation, a violation of the Web site's policies.
Numerous competing antispyware companies, including Spybot-Search & Destroy parent PepiMK Software and Sweden-based Kephyr.com, have identified SpyBan as a potential source of unwanted spyware--notably a program listed by many spyware cleaners as Look2Me. Download.com had also independently warned that Look2Me might be installed along with SpyBan.
"I classified SpyBan as a Trojan Horse, since it gives the impression that it will protect your privacy, but does the opposite--installs spyware," alleged Kephyr's Roger Karlsson in an e-mail interview.
A CNET News.com test of SpyBan on Jan. 29 found that the software did remove some adware components but also confirmed that it led to the installation of a file that Spybot and security firm Symantec identified as Look2Me. Symantec lists Look2Me as a spyware application, while its rival PestPatrol defines the same application as an adware program.
"Look2Me is a spyware program that monitors visited Web sites and submits the logged information to a server," Symantec reports on its Web site. According to PestPatrol, Look2Me is categorized as "software that brings ads to your computer. Such ads may or may not be targeted."
Who is SpyBan?
Information and links on SpyBan's Web site disappeared late on Monday, following inquiries from a CNET News.com reporter. An e-mail to a generic "info" address at the SpyBan Web site elicited an initial reply, but the company did not reply to questions about its software.
Prior to going dark, the SpyBan Web site contained no information about its corporate parent, and the domain name database--Whois--that typically contains contact information for companies contained none for SpyBan.
A Look2Me license agreement found on a cached Google Web page identified Minneapolis-based NicTech Networks as the software's "owners/authors."
A trace of SpyBan.net's Web domain name late on Tuesday showed that the site was hosted at the same Internet address as NicTech Networks. The SpyBan e-mail also originated from that IP address. Repeated calls to NicTech were not returned.
A question of trust
The effects of spyware and adware programs vary. Some spyware programs run quietly in the background, sometimes capturing what a computer user types or what Web sites are visited. Some of these applications, which are called keystroke loggers, are so potent that they can record user names and passwords for the most closely guarded Web sites, including online banks.
Far more common are "adware" programs, which can operate unseen in the background. These periodically pop up windows with advertisements, change a Web browser's home page, install unwanted search toolbars or add bookmarks to a browser. Many of these software programs track Web surfers' habits online and send the data to their parent companies.
Security experts say it is difficult to keep up with spyware programs, which constantly shift their way of working inside a computer to evade detection and which generally contain many times more programming instructions than an average virus. The confusion is underscored by differences in how security firms describe specific programs.
"I doubt anyone knows precisely what these things do, apart from the authors," PestPatrol researcher Roger Thompson said. "They are really complex. Viruses are easy compared to these things."
There is little doubt that millions of PCs have been infected with spyware and adware programs.
A recent unscientific EarthLink survey gives some indication of the spread of the problems. The company offered its subscribers a free online spyware-scanning tool, similar to an antivirus scan program. In the course of 426,500 scans, EarthLink found more than 2 million adware files installed and more than 9 million "adware cookies"--a type of cookie that tracks people's surfing habits.
A few independent antispyware companies, such as Lavasoft's Ad-Aware and Spybot, have been around long enough and have been used by enough people to have gained a reputation as safe.
For the most part, Net experts warn consumers simply to be careful, to make sure that they trust the source of any software they install on their computers and to contact authorities such as the Federal Trade Commission if they think that their privacy has been violated.
"My first advice, if you get spam advertising a piece of software: You should really think twice before downloading that program," the CDT's Schwartz said.