Spyware Hides in Plain Sight

Those innocuous little toolbars could be leaking your corporate data

12:00 PM -- Just when you thought you were safe, your browser made a connection out to the Web. It was a hidden one -- one that you probably didn't know about or think about, nor would you have authorized it if you had known about it. This is the realm of spyware.

Spyware is one of today's nastiest sources of data leakage, and it's all over the Internet -- often in the most innocuous places. But there it is, stealing data from your browser, making requests out to the Internet, and logging your information for offline analysis. And once it happens, your data is no longer yours, no matter how hard you try to get it back.

Two examples of innocuous spyware are the Alexa toolbar and the Google toolbar. Sure, both have a wonderful facade and are never classified as real spyware. But under the hood, they have much of the same functionality as traditional spyware. Alexa's functionality is designed to help people measure how much traffic they get. But it can also be used by attackers to find out where other domains are hosted, and it allows Alexa to know a lot about traffic patterns that they should never know about.

In a recent article, a black hat search engine optimization expert explored how Google may use its spyware to create better link quality in its search engine. Does this feel like a slippery slope? Google has already gone through the PR hailstorm with its Web accelerator tool that caches people's content as they surf, so it is surprising that the company would continue this type of monitoring.

It's true that Google got the checkmark from the anti-spyware companies to say that its tool has no nefarious uses. But that is only the opinion of those companies, not necessarily fact. Google is an advertising company, after all. Use your own judgment.

Google ostensibly uses its page rank monitoring tool to help users of Google Toolbar find out how relevant the content is. But Google has admitted that this is not what page rank really means -- more likely, it's an indicator of how often Google feels the content should be spidered. And while checking each page to see how relevant it is, Google also makes a request to its servers to find out where you are visiting. This, in turn, allows Google to monitor which pages the user goes to.

How do all these toolbars affect you? Have you ever visited a URL that was intended to be private? Have you ever gone to a demo/beta site that isn't yet open to the public? Have you surfed an intranet site that was accessible to the Internet -- but only password protected? Do you use any of these types of toolbars? If so, all of that data is now stored in databases on the Internet -- and owned by companies that will never get rid of that data.

Will these companies ever do anything bad with their knowledge? They claim they won't, but if the rumors that they are using the toolbar to track users to measure link quality are true, they may have already broken their own privacy policies.

And that's just the innocuous spyware. Think about what the really bad spyware does! If you haven't put in a policy to remove unnecessary toolbars from corporate laptops, there is no way to know how much data is leaking out your company -- on every request.

— RSnake is a red-blooded lumberjack whose rants can also be found at Ha.ckers and F* Special to Dark Reading.