Definitions, Cookies and Criteria

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-03-21 Print this article Print

I have no doubt that Symantec intends to cover such situations, and the company was very clear that it views the Risk Impact Model as the beginning of a conversation about such definitions, not a fixed-in-stone position. So I wouldnt be surprised if such products are covered more clearly in future versions of the document. Microsoft, on the other hand, deals with the issue specifically. It really looks like Microsoft is not taking any of the phony-baloney excuses that adware and spyware vendors put out.
Consider this line from the Microsoft document: "Note that Microsoft reviews the behaviors of programs installed not only by the software vendor but also by its third-party affiliates to determine whether the software vendor and/or its affiliates should be included in the definition library." Affiliates are a classic dodge used to dodge responsibility.

An important similarity is that both companies refuse to look at cookies as on par with actual code-based threats. Too many anti-spyware products, including Spybot Search & Destroy and Webroot Spy Sweeper, classify cookies as every bit as much of a threat as a Trojan horse that steals your passwords. The ambiguity that we all agree is a problem with classifying adware and spyware just shouldnt be an issue here; there are good reasons for cookies and as long as they function properly theyre a manageable problem. Eric Howes, another analysts analyst in the anti-spyware business, is the head anti-spyware testing guy at Spyware Warrior, and developer of the sites famous list of rogue anti-spyware apps. Howes has taken an interest in this issue of defining spyware and adware. Id like to thank him for the helpful set of links, included below, to various spyware studies and attempts to define and categorize it.

Both Howes and Edelman are concerned about Symantecs lack of emphasis on installation, and they have me more worried than I was initially. I hope Symantec takes the time to paraphrase some of Microsofts words on the subject.

Howes is disturbed by the whole emphasis on defining spyware. The definition is only useful if it helps to identify software that performs undesirable actions. This is why he likes the Sunbelt Software Listing Criteria, of which he is one of the authors. This set of criteria focuses on the actions performed by the program. The point is to blacklist objectionable behaviors that reasonable people would regard as deceptive, coercive or otherwise outrageous. This falls in line with the FTC focus on deceptive behavior, so it has a chance of being instructive to the legal end of the process.

I still think that the major security companies will end up dominating anti-spyware software because having two scanners for viruses and spyware/adware is silly. But it could be that these threats are different enough from their existing models that it will take a while for them to get it right. Symantec may do well to buy someone experienced, as Microsoft did.

Next Page: Links to adware/spyware targeting criteria & definitions.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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