Spyware and all of its cousins have risen from the level of technology nuisance to the level of the national radar. It is one of the many outlaw programs hanging around the Internet ready to take advantage of unsuspecting computer users who dare to attempt to use what they have paid for -- their computers and the Internet. Everyone has stories of soccer moms or NASCAR dads trying to reinstall an operating system over a phone line with help from a computer vendor's over burdened support staff, and I won't bore you with mine. But a few statistics might show you what a pervasive problem it is. For example:
The Federal Trade Commission released a survey in September of 2003 showing that 27.3 million Americans have been victims of identity theft in the last five years or approximately 4.6 percent of the U.S. population. According to the FTC survey, 2002 identity theft losses to businesses and financial institutions totaled nearly $48 billion and consumer victims reported $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses. Granted all that theft is not coming from spyware, but spyware might be becoming the thieves' tool of choice.
In an article dated October 15, 2004, posted on WebProNews.com Mike George, vice president and general manager of Dell Computer's U.S. Consumer business said, "Since January 2004, more customers have called Dell seeking relief from spyware than for any other technical support issue." Although the article did not mention how much this support is costing Dell and its customers, it cannot be cheap and represents an unproductive drag on the economy.
Identity theft is not the aim of a lot of spyware; it simply seeks to capture data about customer or Web site visits that can later be mined for information that might be valuable to marketers or product development people. But regardless, it is out of hand. Spyware and associated adware and other applications bring personal computers to their knees. And while there might be a thriving new industry growing up around the concept of protecting computers, as in the Dell experience, there is no productive result from this economic activity save making a customer happy.
Many solutions are being promoted to rid the Internet and individual computers of spyware. Internet Education Foundation (IEF) and Dell computer have teamed up to form the Consumer Spyware Initiative (CSI), a public awareness campaign, in an effort to raise public awareness of the spyware problem and educate users on the best means for protecting themselves and eliminating these threats. But while most people would agree that it is unacceptable to let Internet outlaws get away with their crimes, there is some division about how to handle the threat.
Programs like the one started by CSI are valuable and many prevention efforts can grow out of these initiatives. But, by themselves, these efforts are insufficient since they pit innocent novices against trained experts. More to the point, it is unacceptable to expect that the solution to this pervasive problem ends with individual initiative and vigilance. The people who paid for the development of the Internet and who also pay for their computers have a right to expect more. There is a proper role for government in policing and protecting the public and apparently many in congress agree.
Two bills aiming to curb or eliminate spyware, The Internet Spyware Prevention Act and the Safeguard Against Privacy Invasions Act, each passed the House of Representatives in the late summer. These bills are essentially dead for this session but they deserve to be reintroduced in the new congress. You can help the effort by telling your representatives in the house and senate that this is an important issue deserving their attention and speedy passage.
Finally, be advised that the issue is not as black and white as it might seem at first. Some aspects of the technology on which spyware is based suggest that a whole industry is being born that could come to occupy a legitimate place in the marketing and advertising arsenal as tastes change and we become adept at zapping TV ads. The idea of listening to customers is as old as the hills, and it has never been done adequately on a consistent basis. In a controlled environment, and with the knowledge and approval of the PC owner, capturing this kind of customer information could be a vital new marketing tool.
But the kind of unregulated spying and identity theft that wrecks innocent people's lives and computers is not the way to make progress. If we tame this beast now some aspects might become valuable tools in a new industry. More importantly, if we don't, it will retard the development of the Internet as a reliable business platform.
I suggest you contact your representative and senators to let them know your thoughts on the subject or your support for legislation. We've made it a priority to help people in this matter and if you would like more information it can be found at www.beagleresearch.com.
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