Can You Trust TRUSTe?

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-03-21 Print this article Print

Would you think that a program that hides misleadingly named entries in inappropriate areas of the registry is trustworthy? Me neither, but TRUSTe does.

TRUSTe is a nonprofit organization set up to help Internet users determine who is worthy of their trust, in commerce or other areas on the Web. The company sells a number of seals that you might see when interacting with Web sites. These seals are meant to show that the site adheres to TRUSTe's standards for Web privacy, e-mail privacy and other such concerns.

TRUSTe has long had a reputation for not aggressively enforcing its own standards. Its business model, even as a nonprofit, created a conflict of interest in that it gets its income from the companies it is certifying.

A recent episode shows that the problems continue. Back in August, Ben Edelman (now a professor at Harvard Business School) reported on misleading and undesirable behaviors in the PC software used by Coupons Inc. As Edelman noted, Coupons' software allows you to print out coupons that you may bring to normal brick-and-mortar retailers, but they were requiring that the printing be done through custom software that included an ActiveX control.

Edelman also noted that the software was using files and registry entries with names that were misleading and that were stored in improper locations, such as the \windows directory. Many appeared to be named to give an observer the idea they were part of Windows. Some of them were not removed after the uninstaller was run.

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Edelman also noted that Coupons uses a TRUSTe seal and that TRUSTe rules prohibit misleading names for program elements in an attempt to impede removal. He filed a complaint with TRUSTe, who said it would make Coupons change its file names.

I have spoken to TRUSTe about the matter. It said that in September Coupons agreed to comply, and that a new, compliant version was brought out in December. It said the seal was not up at the time and that three months is a reasonable period of time for such a change.

Then a few days ago, I read a second Edelman blog that said nothing has changed. To make a long story short, Coupons and TRUSTe claimed to me that this was a temporary error, specifically that in the process of a server migration, old files had been put online March 15. The new, compliant files, they said, were put back up March 17. Edelman retested and found that, while the number of deceptive file and registry names has gone down, some still remain, and they still defy uninstallation.

I ran the same tests and got the same results. For example, Coupons' program (couponprinter.exe) installs a file named cpnprt2.cid in the %WINDIR%\system32 directory, and makes it read-only and hidden:

You might wonder what a CID file is. In fact, it's a DLL file, Windows code that can run from any program, since it's on the path. Why do they name it CID? I can think of plenty of reasons, but none of them are good. This file is still there after you run the Coupons uninstaller, as is a registry key.

Coupons found out about the old version of the software from John Stottlemire, a blogger who wrote about the problem and then reported it to TRUSTe. TRUSTe went to Coupons about it, and Coupons corrected it, at least as far as getting it back to its current shape. In their own blog on the matter, TRUSTe officials said this episode "provides a good example of how the program should work."

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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