SAN MATEO (05/08/2000) - Have you ever had uninvited house guests show up unexpectedly, make themselves right at home, and maybe even start making a few changes to the place to suit their fancy? If not, you may be in for that experience soon -- on your computer.
Intrusive software is a growing trend on the Gripe Line, as readers report a variety of software products showing up on their systems without their knowledge. And often the only way users find out the software's there is when it starts making changes to their system settings or opening an Internet connection for its own purposes.
The most notorious recent example of intrusive software has come from GoHip.com Inc., a search/chat/e-mail site that offers a free ActiveX download plug-in on its own site and via other Web sites. What users don't discover until after they've downloaded the plug-in (unless they hunt through the fine print of GoHip's license) is that the software automatically makes a number of modifications to their systems, such as making GoHip.com a user's home page and adding a signature promoting GoHip at the end of each e-mail message the user sends. One reader who tried to use the plug-in to download a video from another site was particularly frustrated when the plug-in failed to work because he still was stuck with having to remove all the changes it had made to his system.
"I find this kind of aggressive behavior extremely offensive, since I had never agreed to allow them to use my e-mail as advertisements or to redirect my default pages," the reader wrote. "I wouldn't want to see this behavior expanding, [because] GoHip is just stealing bandwidth and in a way that would be difficult for a newbie to undo."
Another form of intrusive software was reported by an IT manager at a company that has the not untypical policy of prohibiting users from installing software on their systems without her approval. One user, however, innocently clicked on an e-mail attachment from a client, which proceeded to install eFax software on his system in order to let him read his client's message.
"He was given no prior notice of the installation or opportunity to decline installation of this software," wrote the IT manager. "I consider this extremely bad manners, no better than a virus and possibly even contrary to federal law. This eFax outfit is doing something unnecessarily intrusive."
An eFax representative confirmed that users (eFax has both free and paid versions of its fax-via-e-mail service) can attach eFax client software to serve as a reader for messages sent to an e-mail address instead of a fax number. The IT manager, however, believes the eFax software was intended to do more than just let the recipient read one message.
"It installed a whole set of files in the [Windows NT] program directory, another no-no in my book -- including an INI file and a desktop icon." she wrote. "It looks like more than just a reader, as it runs from the desktop icon independently of a message file."
Whereas programs such as those from GoHip and eFax intend to bring attention to the companies that provide them, other programs may try to slip by unnoticed.
And as we've seen in previous discussions of software that "phones home" surreptitiously, those can be the most dangerous. One reader thought he'd found something sinister going on when a system utility he was using reported a program called Tioga on his system was trying to access the Internet.
"I didn't even know this program was there," the reader wrote. "The scary part is that I found Tioga log files on my computer that included the path to my [Internet Explorer] history folder! Was someone watching where I surf? Is it monitoring what software I install? It is clearly an ethical breach to install any software that communicates with the outside world without explaining what it does and asking the user's permission."
As the reader had recently installed the latest software upgrade for his Excite@Home Inc. broadband service, he ultimately traced the Tioga software to @Home and its support partner, Support.com (formerly known as Tioga).
Support.com officials explained that the Tioga software the reader saw was the older version of its "self-healing agent" that can help @Home users rebuild lost Internet or browser settings. As the user had just installed @Home's new software, the program was accessing the Internet to get the update of the healing agent.
This was not quite the nefarious deal the reader had feared, and it sounds as though @Home may even deserve plaudits for taking proactive measures to improve support. But even if it is done with the best intentions, the reader's point about software communicating with the outside world without permission still holds true. Not only do we not want uninvited software, we'd really prefer them not to use the phone without asking.
Got a complaint about how a vendor is treating you? Write to Ed Foster, InfoWorld's reader advocate, at firstname.lastname@example.org