Why Microsoft AntiSpyware Is Untrustworthy

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-07-12 Print this article Print

Opinion: Just when you think Microsoft did something important the right way, it does the worst possible thing. What is going through the company's head?

Im still waiting for the explanation that makes it all make sense, but it doesnt look good. I have the nasty feeling Microsoft was disappointed with its good-guy/good-technology approach to anti-spyware. The security business is not like most of the software categories in which Microsoft participates. People care about reputations. Users have to trust the product. And you just cant trust a product that tells you to ignore the fact that Clarias GAIN software is installed on your system.

Lets look at the stated reasons why Microsoft has changed the recommendation for GAIN and ignore, as the company would have us do, the rumors it has not denied of an acquisition of Claria.

Microsoft, in a statement, said: "[We] decided that adjustments should be made to the classification of Claria software in order to be fair and consistent with how Windows AntiSpyware handles similar software from other vendors."

How does Microsoft handle similar software from other vendors? It turns out that Microsoft has a set of guidelines for evaluating spyware titled "Windows AntiSpyware (Beta): Analysis approach and categories."

I looked at these and similar guidelines from others in a column several months ago and was impressed. The guidelines struck me as a no-nonsense approach to the problem. Microsoft wasnt trying to set up loopholes for themselves or the spyware vendors, and it wasnt cheapening the standards in order to make the evaluation easier.

The standards are still there, and the document is dated March 15, 2005, so I assume they havent changed. How then do we explain that Microsoft AntiSpyware now says to ignore GAIN, a program that exhibits many of the characteristics that the guidelines define as spyware? I can only assume the guidelines arent the only input to the process. Given that business deal (the one were ignoring, for the sake of argument), this is a scary possibility. And yet Microsoft denies it: "All software is reviewed under the same objective criteria, detection policies and analysis process. Absolutely no exceptions were made for Claria."

David Coursey gives Microsoft tips on how to extract itself from its anti-spyware controversy. Click here to read his thoughts. Eric Howes, who knows the spyware business as well as anyone on the good side of it, thinks Microsoft is actually trying to apply its standards, doing it badly and coming to flawed conclusions. Clarias is not the only adware that has been recently reclassified with an "Ignore" recommendation. So have WhenU, Wehhances, eZula.TopText and New.net. In an interview, Microsofts Mike Nash indicated that reclassifications were being done to meet the criteria and that the old classifications reflected errors from Giant Software, from whom Microsoft bought its AntiSpyware software.

I have trouble with this for a simple reason: The outcome is so plainly wrong that Microsoft couldnt really believe that its criteria led to them. Consider some of those criteria:
  • Examples of poor notice and consent include, but are not limited to: ... Failure to present the End User License Agreement in the users normal computing experience.
  • Examples of problematic behaviors demonstrated by advertisements include, but are not limited to: ... Failure to offer clear attribution of their source ... Presence of false or deceptive content.
  • Examples of poor installation and removal behaviors include, but are not limited to: ... Failure to use standard install/uninstall features, such as Add/Remove Programs or the same Start menu folder as the program itself.

Now consider some of the practices of Claria as detailed by Ben Edelman on his informative site: I could go on much longer, but suffice it to say that the criteria are reasonable, and can only be reasonable interpreted to judge GAIN as offending.

Getting back to the rumored acquisition that were not talking about, given that Microsofts generosity in reclassifying GAIN was also extended to other notorious adware vendors, it appears that the reclassification was not done to whore for Claria. Since there cant have been a good reason to perform such an erroneous act, why did Microsoft do it? Fundamentally it doesnt matter because, no matter what the reason, we know that Microsofts AntiSpyware product is no longer trustworthy.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. More from Larry Seltzer
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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