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Spyware Inc.


For most of us, certain things are considered sacred: Home. Family. Car. And, in today's increasingly wired world, our computers. So it was no surprise that BusinessWeek's Cover Story about adware giant Direct Revenue, "The Plot to Hijack Your Computer" (July 17), struck a nerve with many readers. This tale and the accompanying package of stories about the multimillion-dollar industry that toils to secretly track your movements across the Web while planting unwanted pop-up ads on millions of PCs led more than 160 readers so far to voice their opinions by either e-mail or snail mail.

Besides the basic outrage, by far the most spirited debate revolved around whether adware-weary computer users should abandon their Windows machines for PCs running the Linux operating system or Macs, which have been less targeted by the malware industry. Online reader JohnD echoed the sentiments of many Apple devotees when he wrote: "My anti-spyware program: Macintosh OS X. After you get a Mac, it's almost fun to watch all the Windows users pulled over to the side of the information superhighway for repairs."

But online reader Xarn notes that the problem is not that simple. "Of course, spyware [today] is only for Windows [because] Mac users are still very marginal, so why bother?" he writes. "If -- and that's a big if -- Mac one day becomes the dominant PC platform, trust me there will be plenty of spyware for it."

There was far more reader agreement that many victims of spyware are in part to blame for their predicament because they are so eager to download "free" software or music that they often fail to peruse the customer agreements that go with them. "There is no such thing as 'free,' especially on the Internet," explains online reader Ron_C. "If it says free, it's guaranteed to have something attached. Caveat emptor."

Although readers almost unanimously likened malware makers to the spawn of Satan, one respondent found a surprising silver lining in the miscreants' devilish handiwork. "These are brilliant programmers looking to take advantage of the normal Web user's ignorance and looking for the quick buck," wrote online reader bobgoldschmidt. "However, remember that virtually all of today's e-commerce technologies originated from the early Internet pornography industry -- which 'good' people bemoaned, but ultimately benefited from. I suspect that the technologies developed by the Dark Arts team and similar groups will eventually find their way into legitimate uses."

That may be wishful thinking. But if today's PC hijacking techniques could beget tomorrow's remote management technologies to make computers easier to use, then perhaps all is not lost. In the meantime, here's a sampling of what other, less sanguine readers had to say:

I think it's outrageous that we spend over $2 billion dollars a year just to get rid of something that nobody asked for in the first place. It's a bit like me sitting down for dinner in my home and suddenly an intruder breaks into the front door, demands to be included at the dinner table, and then refuses to go away unless I pay him. And even if I do pay, he remembers my address and then sells it to other intruders. Where does this stop? -- Will Robertson, Vice-President for Sales Market Scan Information Systems Inc. Westlake Village, Calif.

People like those in the "Dark Arts" division are why I don't allow myself to own a gun. The amount of resources, time, and money wasted by them is unfathomable, and they show no remorse whatsoever -- like it's their right to do this to machines they don't own. -- Afreyt, posted July 8

I've been fighting for weeks to remove a rootkit invader from Web Nexus Network, to no avail. These spamazoids are ruthless and insidious. If our feds want to really do something to earn their keep, then they ought to get after these privacy thieves. And no, I don't want to kill them. I just want them to have to sit in front of an infected computer for eight hours a day for the rest of their lives. -- Capt. Trips, posted July 10

We're concerned about terrorists attacking us through bombs and other such devices. [But] these people are terrorists of the worst kind, attacking and disabling not just a couple hundred or a few thousand computers. Guant?namo would be too good a place for people like Direct Revenue's founders, investors, and employees. -- Dave, posted July 8

Could we see pictures of these people? Someone should create a Web site where the owners and employees of these "businesses" are exposed. They're Public Enemies, after all. -- RP, posted July 10

There's no reason to put up with any of this. The simple solution: (1) throw out your PC (preferably from a height of eight stories or more), (2) get a Mac, (3) download Firefox and make it your default browser. -- Carol Georgopoulos, Albuquerque

Taking simple precautions to protect your PC is similar to using common sense in general: Don't put yourself at risk [by] walking across a dark parking lot in a bad neighborhood alone at night, and use a condom with strangers [during] sex. While there is no surefire way to avoid trouble, a little thinking and some basic software help reduce the odds to a minuscule level. -- Rick Cunnington, Oro Valley, Ariz.

I have had my Windows machine running for four years and no problems at all. The secret? I do not install junk. This is the reason Mac users do not have many problems -- there's not much software (and respective junk share) available. It's not the OS, dude. It's you. -- Fred, posted July 10

Imagine watching your favorite TV show and a vacuum cleaner salesman popped up in front of you and tried to sell you a machine. You would never buy from him. Do the same for pop-ups, and they will disappear. -- J.R., posted July 8

Taking advantage of PC users' ignorance about the inner workings of their machines is akin to a doctor deliberately misprescribing a drug that causes cardiac failure -- [it's] O.K. because the patient should have known he had heart disease. It's interesting about computers as products: No one takes responsibility for anything going wrong, even when damage is deliberately planned. You wouldn't do the same for burst pipes. Why give the computer industry special dispensation to screw up? -- Bob Jacobson, July 8

Some readers are blaming the victims for thinking they could download free software without any consequences. This reminds me of the attitude that it was Nicole Simpson's fault she was murdered -- after all, she had the resources to move to another city. Let's stop blaming the victims. People have the right to live in their hometowns without being murdered, and they have a right to accept free software without being subjected to cyberterrorism. -- Rohricwl, posted July 8

You don't want spam? Don't give out your e-mail address. You don't want pop-ups? Then buy the software legitimately for $30. Oh, and there is a reason they make you click on "I agree" in the licensing agreements. Regardless of whether you read it or not, you have just given that company permission and access to your computer! -- nothings for free, posted July 8

This is not about Mac vs. PC. This is about ethical vs. not -- that there are people in this world who think nothing of ruining your property for their profit. That, my friends, is the issue. -- John:D, posted July 7

I work for one of those seemingly "ineffective" A/V [anti-virus] vendors that were mentioned, and I can tell you that in the vast majority of adware/spyware infections, the users are manually installing the stuff themselves. Sure, they don't read the fine print, but anyone who still believes that you get something for nothing these days is living in dreamland. And expecting your anti-virus/anti-spyware software to come to your defense is a little like driving a car blindfolded and expecting your air bag to protect you. -- Jack, posted July 9

For the online article and more reader comments, go to http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_29/b3993001.htm

By James E. Ellis


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