From Anti-Spam to Anti-Spyware

EarthLink spokesman Jerry Grasso says consumers want two things from an Internet service provider: secure connections and tools to that cut through the clutter.

As the nation’s largest consumer ISPs — America Online, the Microsoft Network (MSN) and EarthLink — scramble to grab new customers, reduce churn and differentiate their offerings in an increasingly similar world marked only by pricing, promotion of “safety and security” tools is the current hot marketing ticket.

Firewalls, e-mail filters, anti-virus programs, lockout features for parents and software for blocking pop-up ads are now standard with most ISPs.

In October, Atlanta-based EarthLink , the nation’s third-largest ISP with approximately 5 million paid subscribers, introduced its shiniest new tool: a program that seeks surreptitiously installed software, known as spyware .

Developed by the marketers to gather personal data for use in targeted ad campaigns, spyware monitors what users type and the sites they visit, gather personal information and deliver often unwanted ads. It is most frequently secretly introduced into a users’ system through peer-to-peer networking software.

AOL on Tuesday introduced its own version of anti-spyware protection from Aluria Software. The new feature for AOL’s nearly 25 million subscribers will be available when the Dulles, Va.-based online giant debuts AOL 9.0 in the “next few weeks.”

Microsoft , on the other hand, is releasing its own anti-spyware product today as part of a new MSN launch at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

“The ISPs are all sort of marching in lockstep right now on issues like this. Whoever is the first mover, maybe, gets something out it, but the rest quickly follow and it becomes standard,” Joe Laszlo, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research, said. (Jupiter Research and this publication are owned by the same parent company.)

MSN spokesperson Sean Sundwall acknowledged that “the technologies are all basically the same.”

Sundwall added, “We approach it this way: What are the customers’ complaints? The biggest pain point? What’s the next potential pain point? We’re not talking rocket science here.”

As a general rule, spyware is not thought to be a threat to the security of a computer. Sundwall is not aware of any instances of spyware spreading viruses and characterized it as a “nuisance” that raises questions of privacy and potentially opens the door for all sorts of potential abuses, including identity theft.

The National Cyber Security Alliance last year said more than 90 percent of all broadband users have spyware programs on their computers. Most of the programs found their way into users’ computers through music and file-sharing programs. The same study showed 94 percent of broadband users did not know that spyware is often bundled with P2P programs.

The Federal Trade Commission issued a consumer alert last year warning online users about the dangers of spyware.

“2003 was the year of the visible threat, 2004 will be the year of the invisible threat,” said AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein. “Spam was a very visible threat but there are also some very quickly emerging threats that are not so obvious such as firewalls, spyware and identity theft that are just as dangerous or more dangerous to users.”

Weinstein said one week after a user downloads AOL’s anti-spyware program, the software will scan the user’s computer and produce a report describing any spyware installed and evaluate the threat. The user then decides whether or not to disable or remove the spyware program. After that, the AOL program will automatically scan a user’s computer once a week for spyware.

In a bit of differentiation, EarthLink spokesperson Grasso said, “We certainly haven’t seen (AOL’s) product yet but our understanding is that it (the anti-spyware program) automatically turns on. We put control in the customer’s hands. They decide when to run the program.”

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