Monday, November 13, 2006

Why Distinguish Between Spyware And Adware?

By Coenraad De Beer

The difference between spyware and adware has been a heavily debated subject and has been the focus point of many laws and court cases. But it is more important to keep in mind that there should not be a distinction between the two. The whole idea behind the term adware was to confuse the general public and create loopholes in laws, conditioning the Internet user to care less about it.

Advertising companies using spyware to market their products came with the idea to create a term for the software they use to infiltrate the systems of Internet users without breaking any laws. But there is more to the name adware than just a clever legal move. Over time the term adware created confusion among Internet users and made it harder to differentiate between spyware and adware. It did not take the Internet community long to adapt to this new term and all over the Web you see people referring to adware instead of spyware. Making people adapt to the term adware was done in a very subtle manner and its main goal was to make people more sympathetic towards the usage of adware. The term spyware is in essence a “bad” word and creates a more vigilant approach among users, an approach these advertising companies do not want. Nobody wants to be spied on, so you will automatically get a negative response from people if you approach them with the term spyware.

The consumer wants advertisements to stay up to date with the latest trends and specials. Many people support advertising and acknowledge its importance to any marketing campaign. When you call it adware, you are giving the consumer what they want, you use this positive psychological state of mind to your advantage and easily infiltrate computers of consumers without offending them or scaring them off. This is in essence misleading advertising, but adware is in the field of computers and you can’t prosecute it through conventional marketing laws alone. Even from the angle of computer laws, you can’t do much about it either, when the law speaks of spyware you can’t prosecute someone using adware.

Developers of adware always use the excuse that they only deliver ads and never spy on people, they only collect information about their online behaviour in order to deliver them targeted ads. Again they conceal their intention through clever word choice. What else do you call it when you collect information about someone’s online behaviour without his/her consent? You spy on people and that makes it spyware, the fact that the collected information is used to deliver targeted ads is besides the point. Sometimes people use the argument that adware is not bad when it discloses these information collection activities to the user. Is it disclosure when you hide it in a huge Terms of Use document? All of us know that the Terms of Use is never read and most users simply scroll to the end and click on the proceed button. Creators of adware rely on this behaviour. And when the program explicitly discloses program activity through a compulsory window that can’t be bypassed, is it still bad? Most novice users don’t understand this disclosure and don’t realise the implications of information collection and targeted ads. In the end they are annoyed by the endless advertisements populating their screen and can’t understand where they come from. If they are annoyed by these ads, it is clear that they would not have allowed the software to be installed if they understood the disclosure made by the program. You can’t justify your acts if you rely on the ignorance of users.

It is spyware when the “adware” invade programs like your web browser, e-mail reader or any other program on your system through the use of some kind of memory consuming toolbar, add-on or modification, whether you know about it or not. If they want to deliver ads, they should do it through their own program, within a single window, without collecting information about the user, without throwing ads in your face every five minutes or adding useless memory hogs in your Windows Startup. They can base their ads on the software the consumer is using, but only software developed by their organisation.

Lavasoft made a clever choice for the name of their anti-spyware software. The name Ad-Aware removes any confusion there may be. Be aware of ads, they are not as harmless as they seem. The software is developed to remove spyware, whether you call it spyware or not. If a hawker wakes you up every morning before sunrise to offer you his products, but a hawker must be called a consumer agent, does that make it less annoying or justify the invasion of your privacy?

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security, prevention of online fraud and educating users against malicious software. Also visit our Anti-Adware Section for supplementary information on this topic.

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