RealTime IT News

Yahoo! Beta Testing Anti-Spyware Tool

Yahoo! joined the anti-spyware campaign Thursday with the addition of a beta spyware detector for its downloadable toolbar.

The application, known as Anti-Spy, allows users to scan their computers for unwanted software that often surreptitiously piggybacks on downloaded files and secretly monitors the user's browsing habits.

Developed by marketers to gather personal data for use in targeted ad campaigns, spyware often gathers personal information and delivers unwanted popup ads. It is most frequently secretly introduced into a users' system through peer-to-peer networking software.

"We view the toolbar as a consumer management tool. We want to create transparency for the consumer about what's on their computer," Stephanie Iwamasa, a spokesperson for Yahoo! Told internetnews.com. "You can pick what applications you want to use and which ones you do not."

Iwamasa said if users choose to delete suspect software and later change their mind, they can restore the program.

Through the beta testing phase, Yahoo! will obtain consumer feedback about types of spyware and use the information for future anti-spyware development. The Anti Spy beta version (beta.toolbar.yahoo.com/antispyware) is available to anyone visiting the Yahoo! portal.

"We need a good sample size to get feedback. If we reach a certain threshold, we might have to limit [downloads]," Iwamasa said.

Anti-Spy is supported by third-party software provided by Carlisle, Pa.-based PestPatrol. Pete Cafarchio, the company's VP of business development, called the Yahoo! product a "stripped down" version of PestPatrol's free anti-spyware software.

"Their core technology is built on our core technology that detects and removes spyware and provides updates," Cafarchio said.

With Thursday's announcement, Yahoo! joins EarthLink and AOL in introducing anti-spyware products. At a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) spyware workshop last month, Microsoft announced it would include an "unsolicited download suppression tool" in the next XP service pack.

FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson said after the day-long workshop that the solution for invasive programs such as spyware can be best be solved by private industry solutions and consumer education, but Congress has signaled it may be interested in passing legislation to stop what House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) has called "this cancer on the Internet."

Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) has introduced H.R. 2929, the Safeguard Against Privacy Invasion Act. This bill aims to protect individuals from unknowingly downloading spyware and requires that consumers be given notice prior to downloading any software.

The bill would also require that third parties disclose their identity, street address and a valid return e-mail address to the consumer, as well as specifically revealing their intent to collect and use the consumer's information. A similar bill in the Senate, supported by Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif), is currently under consideration by the Commerce Committee.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) is supporting yet another spyware bill that "focuses on bad behavior rather than trying to define a certain type of software."

Said Inslee when he introduced the bill, "Most computer users will tell you that spyware pops up and multiplies like cicadas, but spyware is not a natural event; it is purposefully inflicted. My legislation will target people who set spyware upon us with bad intent."

The FTC agrees with Inslee that spyware involves bad behavior, not bad technology. Spyware, the FTC says, is too vaguely defined and often confused with adware, but generally refers to any software that covertly gathers user information through the user's Internet connection without his or her knowledge, sometimes for advertising purposes. Most forms of adware, however, are installed with the user's knowledge.

Barb Rose, a spokesperson for PestPatrol, said "there is an awareness phase going on now about spyware that this is nasty, nasty stuff. Ultimately, though, it will be technology that solves the problem." Carafchio added, "The problem of computer crime is here to stay. We need for private industry and any legislation to go hand-in-hand."

At Yahoo!, Iwamasa said spyware is an issue that "resonates" with consumers. "All in all, spyware has been increasingly a topic of concern among our users," she added.

According to a report released last year by the Center for Democracy and Technology, spyware creates privacy problems, opens security holes and can hurt the performance and stability of consumer computer systems.