Commentary

Hey Rocky, Watch Me Take a Rabbit from out of my Hat

I put on my sleuthing hat this week and did a little investigative reporting. First, after reading a report that said Microsoft 6.0 already had 2.5% of browser market, I downloaded it to see if they had followed through on their threat to stop enabling Java by default. The good news, at least for some rich media vendors, is that no, in its default setting, Java is still enabled and so things like Eyewonder, Audiobase, and other Java enabled technologies worked just fine. Let's hope they keep that up.

I had a really fun time playing around with Gator. As a magician, I like a little misdirection as well as anyone, and Gator is a master at misdirection. While you are watching the right hand, here are a couple of things that the left hand is doing:

Trick #1: Gator is easy to uninstall.

Here's a little trick you can try at home folks. First go to a site called Lavasoft (http://www.lavasoftusa.com) and download a little program called Ad-Aware. Ad-aware checks your machine for so-called spyware - software that tracks your movements across the Web and then reports back. Run the program and eliminate any spyware programs (if you are like me, you'll be surprised how many you actually have on your machine). Then install Gator.

When you run Ad-Aware again, you'll notice that Gator installs around 50 separate files on your computer. Many of these files are for programs that are bundled along with Gator, such as Onflow and other programs. Now un-install Gator and run Ad-Aware again. Ooops. Gator is still there: in fact 47 of the 50 files Gator installs are still present on your computer after Gator uninstalls itself, including all the bundled programs which are never uninstalled. But of course, you wouldn't know that since Gator doesn't tell you what programs it is installing, doesn't let you know their privacy policies, and doesn't give you any way to uninstall them. Good trick, huh!

Trick #2. Gator protects your privacy.

While you are installing, Gator pops up a friendly note with "highlights" of its privacy policy. In it you will find reassuring messages about how Gator "only" takes your first name, email, zip code, and country so that it can delivery you special offers. Everything else remains safely "encrypted" on your machine.

Well, not exactly. If you read the privacy statement you find out that it also, conveniently takes everything else you happen to fill out in the registration form including your address, your last name, your phone number, your home phone number, your home address, your age, your income...everything but your credit card which does remain encrypted on your machine.

And then, of course, it tracks your IP address, every Web site you go to, how long you are there, what pages you enter, what pages you exit, what offers you take advantage of. And that information never goes away. Because even if you ask Gator to delete your personal data, it saves it all on backup servers that it does not delete (its all in their privacy policy).

But who gets to look at that data? Gator, of course, and any 3rd parties that happen to do any work for Gator, although they are held to the same "high-standards" as Gator, when it comes to safeguarding your privacy. Just don't run for public office once you've installed Gator. Hey, was that Gordon Liddy doing that database installation?

And don't forget those "bundled" software packages that are also monitoring your activities, whose privacy policies you haven't read since you didn't know you were installing when you installed Gator. Remember, they don't get uninstalled when you uninstall Gator.

Now that is a great trick.

All of this information is in the Gator privacy policy. Check it out: it makes fascinating reading. Some recent articles in support of Gator say that the networks and publishers have done a lousy job in providing targeted advertising. But when advertising and filling out forms comes at the expense of this type of privacy invasion, something is seriously wrong.

Gator's greatest trick of all is making everyone think this all about pasting their ads over Web pages. Instead, what this is about is infecting 8 million Internet users with equivalent of digital wiretaps, quietly monitoring their activity while the nation sleeps.

And that is one scary trick.

-- Bill McCloskey is Founder and CEO of Emerging Interest, an organization dedicated to educating the Internet advertising and marketing industry about rich media and other emerging technologies.

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