Its been widely recognized for some time that defining software in the “spyware” and “adware” categories is tricky business, and that these types of programs are not the unambiguous threats that viruses are.
For years the big security vendors dealt with the problem by ignoring it, or perhaps by making half-hearted attempts to combat it. None of them had an anti-spyware product considered even second class.
But now the big guys are stepping into the spyware business. In many ways fighting spyware and adware is exactly like the anti-virus business—the pattern and heuristic scanners these companies have created should be useful against spyware and adware—but they need to know what to scan for. Thats the tricky part.
Microsoft might appear to be new to this business, but it got into it by buying the small but highly regarded anti-spyware Giant Company Software, and, along with it, some savvy. A paper Microsoft just published discussing its approach to selecting programs that fit the blocking criteria for their anti-spyware products shows that sophistication.
A similar paper from Symantec shows that that company is still figuring out how to deal with the new threats. Symantec calls its framework the “Risk Impact Model” and the document is not available online yet.
I see two main differences between Microsofts guidelines and Symantecs: First, Symantecs are geared toward formulating a score for the threat, and Microsofts arent.
Symantec feels that one of the important goals of rules for classifying and evaluating such threats is that they produce information that users will be willing and able to use.
Im really sympathetic to this, but it concerns me too. Symantecs existing scoring for some types of threats is better than for others; for instance, its scoring for OS vulnerabilities has always struck me as very reasoned, while its scoring for viruses and Trojans is at times overstated.
A factor in the scoring, also not an issue in Microsofts analysis, is the prevalence of a threat in the wild. You can see where something like this leads: With viruses, Symantec doesnt push out an update to all users ahead of its normal weekly schedule unless the score for that threat hits 3 out of 5. The potential malicious damage from these threats is almost always very high, but you need to get the threat out there and damaging things to get your overall score to a 3.
It doesnt happen very often. Symantec, it would appear, wants to be able to have a predictable mechanism for deciding when an out-of-cycle update is necessary.
The other difference between Microsofts and Symantecs approaches is the attitude toward the sort of deceptive installation methods that Ben Edelman has examined recently with respect to peer-to-peer bundles and other dishonest vectors.
Symantecs “Stealth” section speaks of software that installs silently, but what about the program that installs after you click Yes to a 10-page legal agreement that asked for permission to install other software on page eight? The vendor can say that you agreed to run the software, but we all know its a phony claim.
Definitions, Cookies and Criteria
I have no doubt that Symantec intends to cover such situations, and the company was very clear that it views the Risk Impact Model as the beginning of a conversation about such definitions, not a fixed-in-stone position. So I wouldnt be surprised if such products are covered more clearly in future versions of the document.
Microsoft, on the other hand, deals with the issue specifically. It really looks like Microsoft is not taking any of the phony-baloney excuses that adware and spyware vendors put out.
Consider this line from the Microsoft document: “Note that Microsoft reviews the behaviors of programs installed not only by the software vendor but also by its third-party affiliates to determine whether the software vendor and/or its affiliates should be included in the definition library.” Affiliates are a classic dodge used to dodge responsibility.
An important similarity is that both companies refuse to look at cookies as on par with actual code-based threats. Too many anti-spyware products, including Spybot Search & Destroy and Webroot Spy Sweeper, classify cookies as every bit as much of a threat as a Trojan horse that steals your passwords.
The ambiguity that we all agree is a problem with classifying adware and spyware just shouldnt be an issue here; there are good reasons for cookies and as long as they function properly theyre a manageable problem.
Eric Howes, another analysts analyst in the anti-spyware business, is the head anti-spyware testing guy at Spyware Warrior, and developer of the sites famous list of rogue anti-spyware apps. Howes has taken an interest in this issue of defining spyware and adware. Id like to thank him for the helpful set of links, included below, to various spyware studies and attempts to define and categorize it.
Both Howes and Edelman are concerned about Symantecs lack of emphasis on installation, and they have me more worried than I was initially. I hope Symantec takes the time to paraphrase some of Microsofts words on the subject.
Howes is disturbed by the whole emphasis on defining spyware. The definition is only useful if it helps to identify software that performs undesirable actions. This is why he likes the Sunbelt Software Listing Criteria, of which he is one of the authors.
This set of criteria focuses on the actions performed by the program. The point is to blacklist objectionable behaviors that reasonable people would regard as deceptive, coercive or otherwise outrageous. This falls in line with the FTC focus on deceptive behavior, so it has a chance of being instructive to the legal end of the process.
I still think that the major security companies will end up dominating anti-spyware software because having two scanners for viruses and spyware/adware is silly.
But it could be that these threats are different enough from their existing models that it will take a while for them to get it right. Symantec may do well to buy someone experienced, as Microsoft did.
Links to Adware
Adware/Spyware Targeting Criteria & Definitions Links
- Aluria – Criteria for Spyware SAFE Certification
- Lavasoft – Threat Assessment Chart
- Microsoft – Spyware Strategy
- Microsoft – Contact and Dispute Information for Vendors
- Microsoft – Windows AntiSpyware (Beta): Analysis Approach and Categories
- Pest Patrol – Is It a Pest?
- Spybot Search & Destroy – Target Policy
- Sunbelt – Listing Criteria
- Aluria – Adware on Your PC
- Aluria – Forms of Spyware
- Aluria – Spyware Overview
- ARS Technica – Malware: What It Is and How to Prevent It
- Computer Associates – What Is Spyware?
- Doxdesk.com – Definitions of Parasite-Related Terms
- Eric L. Howes – Junkware: A New Name for Spyware
- Intermute – What Is Spyware?
- Pest Patrol – Glossary
- PC Pitstop – What Is Spyware?
- SpyBuster – What Are Spyware and Adware?
- Spywaredata.com – Definitions
- SpywareGuide.com – Categories
- SpywareGuide.com – Intro to Spyware
- SpywareInfo.com – What Is Spyware?
- SpywareWarrior.com – History of the Term Spyware
- Symantec – Expanded Threats
- TrendMicro – Spyware: A Hidden Threat (PDF)
- Webopedia.com – Spyware
- Webroot – Spyware Defined
- Webroot – Spyware Terminology & Definitions
- Webroot – What Is Adware?
- Wikipedia – Adware
- Wikipedia – Spyware
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
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