Virus Authors With Commercial

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-07-29 Print this article Print

Funding"> Seth Schoen, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says, "Spyware authors are like virus authors with commercial funding." They operate as (ha ha) legitimate companies, and their products can make money, whereas viruses just make trouble. (It is believed that some worms have been written on contract for criminal organizations or spammers, but this doesnt compare to the way spyware/adware authors operate out in the open.)

Schoen also points out that virus authors focus on reproduction, even if they do try to avoid detection and removal, but spyware and adware authors put a lot of effort into making their programs difficult to remove.

And remember, these programs present themselves as legitimate applications that the user wants, such as a cool new toolbar for Internet Explorer or a comparison shopping program. Virus writers need to install stealthily, hiding themselves from detection. Adware developers can use InstallShield, and in fact it only makes them look more legitimate.

Read all about Microsofts battle to deliver secure software in eWEEK.coms special report on I have a subscription to Symantecs Deepsight Alert Services, and Im a big fan of it, but I recently noticed that they dont track spyware or adware at all. I asked Symantec about it and got the sense that they werent quite sure how to monitor it with the same level of quality they have for the other threats they monitor.

"What would you want us to do?" they asked. I can come up with a lot of ideas. They could track all the spyware and adware implementations, the products to which they are attached, the sites on which they appear, behaviors and how to remove them. Yeah, sure its hard, but if somethings worth doing its worth putting in the effort. (Easy for me to say.) The next step would be tools to defend against and remove these threats. Norton Antivirus added this capability last year, but it was second rate, to put it generously.

Companies like Symantec are also in a tough position blocking or warning their users against some of these programs. Theres a liability issue, since they claim to be legitimate applications. Perhaps this is the biggest reason we havent seen the "legitimate" anti-virus companies make a real effort in this area.

I grow tired of the attention and fear that viruses generate. Much of it comes because the anti-virus companies can deal with viruses, so they warn people about them. They dont have a solution for spyware and adware, so we dont hear about new threats.

Perhaps some of the laws being discussed to fight spyware could help. Since adware vendors purport to be legit, they can be found and sued. Ive had concerns about these laws, but theyre working on the problems in them.

In fact, I dont see a good alternative. You cant stop users from deliberately installing programs, and you cant expect average users to understand warnings like "Browser Helper Objects are often evil tools of unscrupulous advertisers who will grab hold of your computer and not let go." So holding them to a set of rules about disclosure and what actions are permissible without the approval of the user, which is the approach of the legal proposals, has the potential to break the legal blocks that might be intimidating the security software companies.

And besides, some things are just wrong and should be illegal.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center at for security news, views and analysis.
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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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