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Can StopBadware Save The Universe From ... 'Badware'?

It's debatable whether StopBadware.org's education campaign against deceptive adware, spyware, and other malware will provide much of a counterweight against the growth of the lucrative adware/spyware industry, given that this software is often installed without the user's knowledge and is difficult to remove. Launched this week, this group of tech industry leaders, academics, and consumer advocates certainly
It's debatable whether StopBadware.org's education campaign against deceptive adware, spyware, and other malware will provide much of a counterweight against the growth of the lucrative adware/spyware industry, given that this software is often installed without the user's knowledge and is difficult to remove. Launched this week, this group of tech industry leaders, academics, and consumer advocates certainly addresses a weak spot in security, that is, the user's tendency to open e-mails and visit Web sites where they can become infected with programs that slow computing resources and steal information. But, if you play the numbers game, it's doubtful that simply alerting users and security pros to specific dangers will reseal Pandora's Box for a meaningful number of companies. Human nature, and its susceptibility to socially engineered fraud schemes such as phishing and e-mailed worms, is often more powerful than any preventative technology yet conjured.One thing StopBadware.org has going for it is clout. The group is headed by Harvard Law's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Oxford University's Oxford Internet Institute, backed by Google, Sun Microsystems, and Lenovo, and assisted by Consumer Reports' WebWatch. The organization seeks to provide reliable, objective information about downloadable applications to help users make better choices about what they download onto their computers. Longer-term, the group aspires to offer a "software stethoscope" that either StopBadware.org or a third-party software maker might provide to give IT security pros a view of malicious activity present on the Internet globally, John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center and Harvard Clinical Professor of Law, said in an e-mailed interview.

StopBadware.org will feature reports on software applications the group tests and determines fall into the categories of deceptive adware, spyware, or other malware. While some adware providers in particular might take exception to being labeled as "badware," Palfrey insists that his group is "not out to hurt the reputations of companies trying to do the right thing. If we make mistakes, we'll fix them as soon as we figure that out."

Of course, StopBadware.org isn't the only group working to eradicate impediments to the Internet's growth. The Anti-Spyware Coalition, which features AOL, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Yahoo, is also working on ways to tackle spyware and other potentially unwanted technologies. The Center for Democracy and Technology convened the coalition, and the group has produced a document addressing best practices, risk modeling, and objective criteria for flagging the unwanted software.

StopBadware.org's formation comes amidst efforts, from the Center for Democracy and Technology and others, to shut down adware providers. CDT last week filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission against 180solutions and its partner CJB.net, saying the companies use Internet Explorer vulnerabilities to install software and hide its disclosure policies in long legal notices.

Ultimately the new group's success will be determined by how much awareness of badware they can promote and how much badware providers are willing to clean up their act, Palfrey says, adding, If we help to rebuild consumer trust in the computing environment, that'll be success, too."

A sound notion, but StopBadware.org's work is most likely to produce results if combined with a more aggressive approach, as when a U.S. federal court in November shut down prominent adware and spyware suppliers Enternet Media, Conspy & Co. Inc., and Networld One.

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