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The spyware problem

From the deep cellars of Slashdot, a Dell executive was quoted as saying 90% of all PCs are infested with spyware. So unless you're a super-geek wearing a tin-foil hat and monitoring your system 24/7, chances are you've got spyware on your machine.

Granted, apps like AdAware or SpyBot Search & Destroy claim to eliminate the problem. Sadly, I've heard many tech horror stories involving the installation of several spyware-killers due to one not being able to remove certain spyware apps.

The reason I'm blogging about spyware, however, is related to side-affect of the spyware problem: wrongful accusation of spyware.

One thing I've notices around not only online communities but also in reality, is that spyware instantly brings out the worse in everybody - if something is labeled spyware then you're automatically associated with the all the scum of the earth. All the evils of hell you are hereby equated with. Which brings me to the story I mean to blog about...

Not everything found by AdAware or SpyBot S&D is real spyware. A good example is when one of my favorite web-based game engine, WildTangent WebDriver, got bundled with AOL's Instant Messenger, AIM. Many web outlets, such as this one erupted with loud outcries of the "spyware" it installed. Being a hobbist developer and active member of the WildTangent developer community, I got involved in, and violently flamed, in such an online discussion because of my defense of this "spyware". My defense? That Wildtangent's software isn't spyware. How do I know this, you ask? I know this because I've been voluntarily using their software since 1999. I knew the background of the spyware accusations. I knew the basis for their argument which was false. I knew WildTangent was and is a legitimate company whose product is installed on all new HP, Dell, and Compaq machines, and even on some software discs from hardware vendor ATI. But most of all, I knew what the software was doing, unlike the accusers which based their arguments on whatever SpyBot told them.

Of course, any rational conversation and fact checking is not part of a spyware witch burning. No, these people were angry because SpyBot S&D showed them, in nasty red-lettered text, that WildTangent was installed and was spying on them. But the truth was a bit distant from their argument; the real truth was, and still is, that WildTangent does not spy one you. This article from Washington Post author John Gilroy explains it quite well. To quote from the article,

"I downloaded AOL Instant Messenger and ran AdAware 6.0, which identified a component of AIM, WildTangent, as a problem. But is it really spyware?

AOL bundled WildTangent's game software with its new AIM 5.5 program to entice IM users to do more than just chat. But this bundling isn't obvious; many users learn of it only when their anti-spyware utility detects the WildTangent software looking online for video driver updates (as any game would do).

That can resemble the actions of spyware. But AdAware developer LavaSoft took a second look at this situation and now classifies AIM's WildTangent component as non-threatening in AdAware 6.1."

Sadly, some software, including SpyBot S&D as far as I know, still classify WildTangent as spyware.

This is the problem facing many legitimate companies that distribute software over the web. I encourage you to read the privacy FAQ of any software you have questions about. There is a LOT of real spyware out there, just be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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