The Software Practices Police Squad

Opinion: "Anti-Spyware" (I hate that term) is becoming a lot more complicated than just scanning files. Now they have to scan the whole business.

Lets hope its more Jack Webb than Leslie Neilson.

I used to think that the whole category of anti-spyware software was redundant because the established anti-virus products should be perfectly capable of detecting all the threats detected by anti-spyware. They just werent looking for them.

Theres still a lot of truth to this. The scanning techniques used are very similar, and both categories of software are expanding their detection of illicit behaviors exhibited by programs that get through the scanning phase. McAfees VirusScan 2006 is a good example of how all these capabilities can be consolidated into a single protection client.

But its not just a matter of consolidating two sets of signature files. Sometimes the same exact program will be considered legit in one case and a "PUP" (Potentially Unwanted Program) in another, based on the business practices of the company. Was the installation of the program properly disclosed to the user? Was the function of the program misrepresented? I can see why the anti-virus companies have largely avoided this mess. Its a lot harder than just collecting samples and making signatures. They basically have to police the entire development and distribution process.

Issues like these are at the heart of the dispute between AskJeeves and some anti-spyware companies, led by Sunbelt Software. AskJeeves distributes a series of programs including browser toolbars that do meta-search and similar stupid things (theyre all a big dumb waste of time if you ask me).

According to Sunbelt (see their blog entry on the matter), the AskJeeves programs, as you get them directly from AskJeeves, are unobjectionable. But AskJeeves also lets third parties distribute them as "bundleware" (a term I read for the first time today), and in these cases the program is often distributed in a misleading, even abusive fashion.

Let me be clear here: Sunbelt isnt saying that the third-party versions of the AskJeeves toolbars are adware or spyware, just that they are not distributed in an open and honest manner. Another way to put this is that they are not distributed in conformance with standards set, unilaterally to some extent, by Sunbelt. (Another company, Facetime, is getting the same complaints from AskJeeves.)

Both characterizations are true, and Sunbelt has a great case against AskJeeves if you ask me. But I am uncomfortable with companies making decisions like this. I wish there were a clear standard they could follow, but there isnt. Dont jump to the conclusion that the behavior of the AskJeeves affiliates may be defensible; all you need to do is read the Sunbelt white paper on the subject and youll lose all sympathy for them.

Even better, look at the video that Ben Edelman made of his visit to a wrestling site that installed AskJeeves software through security exploits in the browser. The video shows an endless stream of popups and ActiveX installation prompts. Its so out of control I couldnt stop laughing, but in the big picture its not funny. In circumstances like that, how can any program be installed honestly?

So someone has to decide, on the behalf of unsophisticated users, what is a safe place to go and what isnt, and which programs are safe and which arent. The things anti-spyware vendors like Sunbelt look at are beyond what had been the normal realm of malware detection, but someones got to do it. In fact, AskJeeves should be policing their own affiliate relations, but theyre not. Even worse, maybe they like the aggressive practices used to push their programs.

So the next time you find a toolbar in your Internet Explorer and you dont know how it got there, could be the butler did it.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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