Symantec Strikes Back at Adware Vendor

The legal tiff over adware/spyware detection and removal takes a new twist.

Internet security specialist Symantec Corp. has turned the tables on browser toolbar startup Inc., filing a lawsuit to retain the right to flag Hotbar products as a potential security risk for PC users.

Symantecs suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, does not seek monetary damages. Instead, it is asking for a legal judgment supporting Symantecs position that Hotbar program files "are indeed adware and can be treated as computer security risks."

Ziff Davis Internet News has learned that the suit was a direct response to a cease-and-desist letter sent to Symantec demanding that the company stop classifying Hotbar programs as adware.

A similar Hotbar demand, which included the threat of legal action, was also sent to Sunbelt Software Inc., makers of the enterprise-grade CounterSpy spyware protection product.

Symantec currently flags Hotbar as a "low risk threat" and warned that the program adds graphical skins to Internet Explorer, Microsoft Outlook, and Outlook Express toolbars, and also adds its own toolbar and search button.

According to Symantec, Hotbars custom toolbars have keyword-targeted advertisements built into them and can be used to transmit information on browsing habits to various servers, which may be used for targeted marketing.

Symantec also provides a Hotbar removal tool for its customers to uninstall the program.

Sunbelt also classifies Hotbar as "low-risk adware," but the default recommendation for users is set to ignore the program. According to a blog post by Sunbelt president Alex Eckelberry, the Hotbar cease-and-desist demand is a bit of a surprise.

"We list them in our database, we display them in the scan results, but we tell the user This is not a big deal and we put the default action as "ignore" (as opposed to "remove" or "quarantine"). While Hotbar is clearly adware, it is not nearly as destructive to the system as something like CoolWebSearch," Eckelberry said. "So we are telling the user its on their system, but were letting the user decide if we should remove it or not."

/zimages/6/28571.gifThe online privacy group TRUSTe has revoked Hotbars right to display that organizations seal of approval on its Web site. Click here to read more.

Symantec is hoping its lawsuit will set a precedent and turn the legal tables on the adware/spyware vendors. "By asking the court for clarification on this issue in our favor, we hope to continue alerting our customers about the presence of these program files, protecting them against possible security risks," said Joy Cartun, senior director of legal affairs for Symantec. "Through this effort, were trying to ensure that our customers have more control over the programs that run on their computers."

Anti-spyware activist Ben Edelman maintains a long list of legal threats filed by adware vendors against anti-spyware vendors.

Hotbar officials could not be reached for comment. The New York-based company, which has received venture capital funding from Deutsche Bank, C.E. Unterberg, Towbin, and Eurofund, describes itself as an Internet company that combines its user reach with technologies for advertisers and partners.

The companys products include a browser search toolbar, an e-mail toolbar, weather forecast tools, a comparative shopping tool and desktop wallpapers.

/zimages/6/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.