TRUSTe is a nonprofit organization set up to help Internet users determine who is worthy of their trust, in commerce or other areas on the Web. The company sells a number of seals that you might see when interacting with Web sites. These seals are meant to show that the site adheres to TRUSTe’s standards for Web privacy, e-mail privacy and other such concerns.
TRUSTe has long had a reputation for not aggressively enforcing its own standards. Its business model, even as a nonprofit, created a conflict of interest in that it gets its income from the companies it is certifying.
A recent episode shows that the problems continue. Back in August, Ben Edelman (now a professor at Harvard Business School) reported on misleading and undesirable behaviors in the PC software used by Coupons Inc. As Edelman noted, Coupons’ software allows you to print out coupons that you may bring to normal brick-and-mortar retailers, but they were requiring that the printing be done through custom software that included an ActiveX control.
Edelman also noted that the software was using files and registry entries with names that were misleading and that were stored in improper locations, such as the windows directory. Many appeared to be named to give an observer the idea they were part of Windows. Some of them were not removed after the uninstaller was run.
Edelman also noted that Coupons uses a TRUSTe seal and that TRUSTe rules prohibit misleading names for program elements in an attempt to impede removal. He filed a complaint with TRUSTe, who said it would make Coupons change its file names.
I have spoken to TRUSTe about the matter. It said that in September Coupons agreed to comply, and that a new, compliant version was brought out in December. It said the seal was not up at the time and that three months is a reasonable period of time for such a change.
Then a few days ago, I read a second Edelman blog that said nothing has changed. To make a long story short, Coupons and TRUSTe claimed to me that this was a temporary error, specifically that in the process of a server migration, old files had been put online March 15. The new, compliant files, they said, were put back up March 17. Edelman retested and found that, while the number of deceptive file and registry names has gone down, some still remain, and they still defy uninstallation.
I ran the same tests and got the same results. For example, Coupons’ program (couponprinter.exe) installs a file named cpnprt2.cid in the %WINDIR%system32 directory, and makes it read-only and hidden:
You might wonder what a CID file is. In fact, it’s a DLL file, Windows code that can run from any program, since it’s on the path. Why do they name it CID? I can think of plenty of reasons, but none of them are good. This file is still there after you run the Coupons uninstaller, as is a registry key.
Coupons found out about the old version of the software from John Stottlemire, a blogger who wrote about the problem and then reported it to TRUSTe. TRUSTe went to Coupons about it, and Coupons corrected it, at least as far as getting it back to its current shape. In their own blog on the matter, TRUSTe officials said this episode “provides a good example of how the program should work.”
TRUSTe’s director of marketing told me that nothing in Coupons’ behavior indicated malicious intent. I guess I look at things differently. After a few years in the security business, when I see companies putting misleadingly named program files and data on the system, I tend to lose trust in them. I still haven’t heard from Coupons about why it needs to install hidden program files with misleading names in the Windows System directory, a practice long known by even newbie programmers to be bad practice.
Another thing TRUSTe doesn’t say in its blog is that Stottlemire has a history with Coupons. The company has been suing him for months now. Pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and state laws, Coupons has been trying to get a court to compel Stottlemire to stop revealing details of how its software works, including instructions on how to completely remove it from one’s computer. Click here for Stottlemire’s comprehensive rant on the legal issues.
Stottlemire also argues that TRUSTe has been far too credulous of Coupons’ claims and, apparently, does not test software as well as it claims to. He specifically claims to have proof that the old version of Coupons software was online long before March 15, but TRUSTe has chosen to believe Coupons instead.
He also claims that the program, which TRUSTe says is compliant with its privacy requirements, “still uses a deceptively named random registry key hidden in the Windows registry in a place it obviously does not belong and further hides a deceptively named file which collects pseudonymous data about a consumer’s computer in the windows or windows system32 directory, again a random decision.”
I haven’t validated every point Stottlemire makes, but I haven’t seen him wrong on anything. Currently, the program creates misleadingly named registry keys and files that are not removed when the program is uninstalled, in violation of TRUSTe’s rules, and TRUSTe is happy about it and there is a TRUSTe seal on the Coupons site again.
I should add that Jeff Weitzman of Coupon said that “we are now testing a new version that makes the CID visible when installed, along with an updated uninstaller. If testing goes well, this will be released in a couple of weeks.” He told me that this was at TRUSTe’s request, but since the logo is there now, I guess it’s not at its demand.
At this rate, there may eventually be a happy ending, when Coupons responds to the last complaint and the last vestiges of its legal actions against Stottlemire are dismissed. But it will take much longer before I think of trusting its software on my computers. And if I know not to trust a TRUSTe seal without corroboration, what good is it anyway?
Security CenterEditor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer’s blog Cheap Hack.