They have innocuous-sounding names—ShopAtHomeSelect, CoolWebSearch, Searchex, IEDriver—and are called many things: spyware, adware, scumware or the euphemistic PUPs (for "potentially unwanted programs"). But theres no disputing that, by any label, programs that monitor users online behavior, legally or illegally, are a big business and a big headache for computer users and IT administrators.
Spyware is a $2 billion-a-year industry, according to Webroot Software Inc., judging from rough estimates of the number of adware installations and the amount of money generated by each installation. Its an industry girded by business relationships that tie legitimate advertisers to online marketing companies, small application vendors, Web site operators and shadowy online groups with iniquitous ties. The industry is a Wild West of aggressive marketing, loose oversight and big profits—all flowing from consumer behavior and the surreptitious programs that track, mine and shape that behavior.
Cleaning up the spyware economy will be a challenge, experts say. Enterprises face an explosion of spyware and adware that threatens compliance efforts and intellectual property. As with anti-spam legislation, anti-spyware laws working their way through Congress wont fix the problem by themselves. While regulators and the high-tech industry seek solutions, organized online crime groups are using spyware to fuel an epidemic of identity theft and online fraud.
At Family Credit Counseling Service, in Rockford, Ill., spyware became a big problem in the last 12 months, said Joshua Beard, a technical support specialist at the nonprofit organization, which provides financial counseling services to individuals.
"It started with those little search bars that come up, which were an annoyance more than anything," Beard said. The problem escalated into a major IT headache in the last six months, as the spyware and adware infections multiplied and began causing more damage.
Technicians for the San Lorenzo Unified School District, in California, had a similar story, said Art Cipriano, director of IT. "We were continuously receiving work orders to fix slow computers and getting panic calls of pop-ups taking over computers," Cipriano said. "Many times, [the computers] were so severely infected we ended up just [reformatting] them."
About one-third of application crashes reported to Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Wash., are caused by spyware, according to Brendan Foley, senior product manager of Microsofts Windows Antispyware group.