FROM THE TUSTIN NEWS, THURSDAY, JUNE 1, 2006


THE DOC IS IN...

'Scandalous' spyware

Larry Bode gave me an interesting article the other day. It was “Inside the Spyware Scandal,” by Wade Roush and published in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Technology Review of May/June, 2006. It told the story of a particularly pernicious form of spyware put on unsuspecting people’s computers by Sony BMG, the music company, to copy protect the music on their compact disks.

Spyware, you may remember, are uninvited computer programs that can be placed into our computers without our permission and hide in the background. They usually are intended to “spy” on how we use our computers and this information is sent back, via our internet connections, to third parties for the purpose of advertising and marketing.

But this particular spyware was installed by Sony BMG music taking advantage of the peculiar way that Microsoft Windows is programmed to play compact disks. It is not important how this works but what is important is that the spyware hid itself so thoroughly that normal anti-spyware programs could not detect and eliminate it. Only when a computer professional happened to come across these “strangely named files lurking deep inside the computer,” after the computer had been scanned for viruses and spyware, did he recognize that something still was wrong.

A scandal followed because “Sony BMG neglected to tell its customers about the program’s presence or to provide a straightforward way to uninstall it.”

Experts opine that the presence of this particular program and almost all spyware is illegal under federal and many state laws. But this still is a gray area in law and spyware is pervasive because the information gathered is so valuable to marketers.

Spyware can be installed on our computers when we download programs from the Internet or, in the case of Sony BMG, when we simply play a compact disk. It can gather information surreptitiously, cause advertising “popup” ads to appear, or keep us from performing certain operations, like making multiple copies. It also can be installed by clicking on innocent looking popup screens that say things like “Protect your computer.” Don’t click on any of these buttons, even “No” or “Cancel.” Instead, close the popup by clicking on the “X” in the upper right corner because clicking on any of the buttons can cause spyware to be installed.

Most forms of spyware can be found and eliminated by modern anti-spyware programs. Popular anti-spyware programs are: AdAware SE, www.lavasoft.com, free of charge but more powerful versions are for sale; Spybot Search and Destroy, www.safer-networking.org, free but donations are appreciated; and Microsoft Defender (beta), www.microsoft.com, free but may be sold when finally released. And most anti-virus companies are starting to include anti-spyware programs with their products. Microsoft Defender and other programs can detect spyware as it comes down from the Internet and alert us. Others only detect programs when the computer is scanned.

Fortunately, more than one anti-spyware program can be installed and run on our computers without causing problems. On my computer I have AdAware, Spybot and Microsoft Defender. Why not?

Incidentally, Sony BMG has proposed a tentative settlement to many lawsuits over their hidden copy protection program but it has not yet been approved. Copyrighting intellectual property is a horribly complex subject that must balance the rights of producers with those of consumers so, I’m afraid, Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology will be with us for some time.

If you would like to hear more about spyware, or other computer topics, visit “Coffee and Computers” at the Tustin Area Senior Center, 200 S. ‘C’ Street, any Friday morning starting at 9 a.m. Bring your questions or just come in and visit. And visit my blog at drart.blogs.com.

In the mean time, keep the neurons happy, synapses snapping and enjoy computing.

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Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: www.arholub.com. This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at: doc@arholub.com.


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