Today's column is about spyware, and today, I'm naming names.
Like many of you, I have been full-bore geeked about the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness is great entertainment for even a casual sports fan. And since it makes Division 1 College hoops so prominent for a few weeks, there is a great deal of media attention on just how corrupt the NCAA really is and how few male scholarship athletes actually graduate and how few black athletes graduate. It's great stuff, whether you prefer being entertained or prefer truth telling that exposes the flaws in some of the totems in our society.
As for me, I'm all about the games, and I love to see the underdogs win. So, as a bona fide Big 5 fan, I'm rooting hard for St. Joe's who, despite their #1 seed in their region, have been publicly called out by Billy Packer. I'm on espn.com, SlamDunk.com, covers.com, and CBSSportsline.com, surfing during the evening or while I eat my lunch, just taking it all in. I'm not a gambler, and am not even in a pool. But the less mainstream and gaming sites are where you'll find the real skinny sometimes. On Sunday, after the last round of games, I did what I do almost every Sunday. I cleaned my hard drive, deleted all cookies and temporary Internet files, and I did a scan of all unfamiliar .exe files I may have run into from these sites and others like them, that have point spreads and similar information.
Come Monday, when I booted up, I had an unexpected visitor. I had a new home page, and this home page was determined to stick around. Something called Sqwire.com had replaced MyYahoo!, and not only that, this visitor of mine had brought its friends. It wasn't even 9:00 AM yet, but my task bar had a new icon that was called the Virtual Bouncer, and this Virtual Bouncer was going to keep me free of any nasty pop-ups or spyware and it was only going to cost me $15.99 every six months. What a great deal! What a great case of breaking and entering! What a load of garbage!
Talk about irony! Here I was, being held hostage by some Hawaii-based code that was going to charge me to prevent itself from doing what it, in reality, does, according to its home page, which claimed that the only way I could have found this on my hard drive was from having opted in and already provided my personal information. This was a highlight for me, as the most Kafkaesque moment I have ever spent online. While the other invaders were insidious and irritating, this one was too much to bear, so I tried to reach them - all of them.
I called, I wrote emails, I wrote again, telling them that I was going to feature them in this column and would they agree to be interviewed... It's now Thursday night, and I have not heard back from any of them. Gee. I wonder why?
Like many of you, I'd like to think that I know what to do when invasions like these occur. It's really not so hard to find where the offending applications are on your system, and it's really not so hard to get rid of them. These guys were especially tenacious, however. It took multiple efforts and almost an hour to remove two applications, because even accessing their folders would make my machine crash; sort of a poison pill that took me some time to work around.
While I was able to bounce the Virtual Bouncer and Sqwire from my laptop, I'm afraid that one of their brethren remains on my hard drive and I can't seem to extract it. It's a tool bar that creates a prefix whenever I go to my homepage, taking over my Search functionality. The prefix changes all the time, so this toolbar's appearance can too. According to their home page, I must have opted into this one, too.
Of course, I never did opt-in to any such thing, and any existing co-registration deals with a media outlet I'd already subscribed to would not execute this way as soon as I booted up after having cleaned my hard drive. How do companies like this do so much business on the Web?
Because right now, there are millions of Web users who are online and being actively tracked by companies like these across multiple sites. Some of the sites they visit will have the personally identifiable information of these users, and this PII will suddenly be in play by these companies. The spyware business is a very lucrative business. While we all hate Spammers, in many cases, it's the spyware practitioners who are the front end for Spammers, gathering email addresses from unwitting users and dropping cookies and other tools on their hard drives that gather information about their Web surfing.
Think Agent Smith in The Matrix, "They are a VIRUS."
We all want the scourge that is email Spam to stop. As far as I'm concerned, Spyware companies like these are at least as significant an enemy. If you're doing business with any of these companies, stop. If you have encountered the Virtual Bouncer or any of his friends, drop me a line, I'll write you with instructions to send him back to where he belongs.