Utility Combats 'Spyware'

SAN FRANCISCO (03/29/2000) - Are you among the Netizens warming up to advertising-supported software, which can mean getting a full-featured program essentially for free? The "catch" is that ads are part of the interface, and they're watching you while you're watching them, privacy advocates warn.

To be sure the ads don't transmit more than marketing data, software entrepreneur Steve Gibson has developed a free utility, OptOut, that scours disks for this "spyware" and uninstalls it from your system.

"Despite what the manufacturers may say, there is no chance to opt out of this background operation when you install some of these programs," Gibson says. "I am providing that choice."

Radiate is one company that markets information-gathering programs to software vendors who offer ad-supported programs. Gibson stresses that he has no reason to believe Radiate has done anything wrong, but the company's program makes privacy advocates nervous. And typically you don't realize when you install a Radiate-driven program what other operations occur in the background.

Gibson, the author of several successful utilities, wrote his watchdog program in three days.

I really like the idea of advertising-enabled freeware," Gibson says. "But in this case, the user has no control of the information that's being sent out."

Gibson urges vendors who use such data-collection technology to take a hint from the name of his program and give people a chance to opt out. He suggests companies adopt a "code of conduct" and ask permission before installing a program that sends information from a PC to another source.

In the meantime, he offers the means to nuke this stuff from your PC.

Erring on the Side of Caution

Using OptOut is almost too simple. Just download and run it; the whole process takes less than 30 seconds. Gibson said 173,000 users have downloaded OptOut since it went online in mid-March.

Radiate, which OptOut identifies and offers to remove, needs access to data sent from your PC so it can track the ad-watching that produces revenues from advertisers, explains Peter Fuller, a Radiate spokesperson. For example, when someone spends 30 seconds scrutinizing a banner ad, its sponsor is billed for the time. Radiate software transmits only this data, and nothing else is going on, Fuller says.

"There is a lot of hype and misinformation about this," Fuller says. "It's not fair for anyone to go after anybody for what is possible rather than what is actually being done."

But he adds that Gibson has made some good points. Radiate is considering mandating that its customers ask permission from PC users for their data, Fuller adds.

Gibson remains concerned about the potential for privacy invasion.

"There is a good side and a bad side to connectivity," he said. "You need to be aware that when you are connected to the Internet there is a much wider 'back channel' that connects your computer to everything else. And software can communicate where it wants to, without giving you a choice."

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