Why Microsoft AntiSpyware Is Untrustworthy

Opinion: Just when you think Microsoft did something important the right way, it does the worst possible thing. What is going through the company's head?

Im still waiting for the explanation that makes it all make sense, but it doesnt look good. I have the nasty feeling Microsoft was disappointed with its good-guy/good-technology approach to anti-spyware.

The security business is not like most of the software categories in which Microsoft participates. People care about reputations. Users have to trust the product. And you just cant trust a product that tells you to ignore the fact that Clarias GAIN software is installed on your system.

Lets look at the stated reasons why Microsoft has changed the recommendation for GAIN and ignore, as the company would have us do, the rumors it has not denied of an acquisition of Claria.

Microsoft, in a statement, said: "[We] decided that adjustments should be made to the classification of Claria software in order to be fair and consistent with how Windows AntiSpyware handles similar software from other vendors."

How does Microsoft handle similar software from other vendors? It turns out that Microsoft has a set of guidelines for evaluating spyware titled "Windows AntiSpyware (Beta): Analysis approach and categories."

I looked at these and similar guidelines from others in a column several months ago and was impressed. The guidelines struck me as a no-nonsense approach to the problem. Microsoft wasnt trying to set up loopholes for themselves or the spyware vendors, and it wasnt cheapening the standards in order to make the evaluation easier.

The standards are still there, and the document is dated March 15, 2005, so I assume they havent changed. How then do we explain that Microsoft AntiSpyware now says to ignore GAIN, a program that exhibits many of the characteristics that the guidelines define as spyware? I can only assume the guidelines arent the only input to the process. Given that business deal (the one were ignoring, for the sake of argument), this is a scary possibility. And yet Microsoft denies it: "All software is reviewed under the same objective criteria, detection policies and analysis process. Absolutely no exceptions were made for Claria."

/zimages/1/28571.gifDavid Coursey gives Microsoft tips on how to extract itself from its anti-spyware controversy. Click here to read his thoughts.

Eric Howes, who knows the spyware business as well as anyone on the good side of it, thinks Microsoft is actually trying to apply its standards, doing it badly and coming to flawed conclusions. Clarias is not the only adware that has been recently reclassified with an "Ignore" recommendation. So have WhenU, Wehhances, eZula.TopText and New.net. In an interview, Microsofts Mike Nash indicated that reclassifications were being done to meet the criteria and that the old classifications reflected errors from Giant Software, from whom Microsoft bought its AntiSpyware software.

I have trouble with this for a simple reason: The outcome is so plainly wrong that Microsoft couldnt really believe that its criteria led to them. Consider some of those criteria:

  • Examples of poor notice and consent include, but are not limited to: ... Failure to present the End User License Agreement in the users normal computing experience.
  • Examples of problematic behaviors demonstrated by advertisements include, but are not limited to: ... Failure to offer clear attribution of their source ... Presence of false or deceptive content.
  • Examples of poor installation and removal behaviors include, but are not limited to: ... Failure to use standard install/uninstall features, such as Add/Remove Programs or the same Start menu folder as the program itself.

Now consider some of the practices of Claria as detailed by Ben Edelman on his informative site:

I could go on much longer, but suffice it to say that the criteria are reasonable, and can only be reasonable interpreted to judge GAIN as offending.

Getting back to the rumored acquisition that were not talking about, given that Microsofts generosity in reclassifying GAIN was also extended to other notorious adware vendors, it appears that the reclassification was not done to whore for Claria. Since there cant have been a good reason to perform such an erroneous act, why did Microsoft do it? Fundamentally it doesnt matter because, no matter what the reason, we know that Microsofts AntiSpyware product is no longer trustworthy.

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

/zimages/1/28571.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 eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.

More from Larry Seltzer