Commentary

Scanning For Fear

Keystroke logger. Monitors mouse movements. High risk application. Privacy threat. Spyware.

Viewing these results from a computer scan, any right-minded user couldn't help but pay serious attention when told that his or her computer is packed with nefarious programs that could be stealing credit card information, Social Security numbers, and other private information. Presented with this information, many users would doubtless find the choice simple: click the "Remove" button and be moments away from a clean operating system.

In today's world of downloadable applications, online advertising and constant online surfing, the situation described above is all too common. And while computer scans may be valuable in protecting users from viruses and threats such as botnets, a problem arises when a user is trying to access sponsored content or a favorite application after completing a scan and, to his or her surprise, is unable to access it because it has been scanned off.

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This is where the core issue exists. Scanning applications exist to tell users what's on their computer. Without a doubt, the online security industry has created a viable business that has seen phenomenal growth. Unfortunately, the industry's proliferation has led to a highly competitive landscape of security applications that are vying for the consumer's dollar. In order to succeed, the challenge is to build a scanning application that provides as many results as possible. After all, if you bought an anti-spyware program and it gave you a short list or no list at all, would you think the software was doing a good job--particularly when a different scanning program provides a longer list?

In the race to stay afloat in a competitive field, quality has given way to quantity and as a result, scanning applications are assigning broad labeling for detected programs. The fact that there are currently no real industry standards that define what is or is not a threat provides ample wiggle room for these vendors to create and operate under their own definitions. One application's "High Risk Spyware" is another application's "Low Risk Malware." In this example, it is likely that in the consumer's eyes, the application that detects the "Spyware" is clearly more valuable. Welcome to Fear Mongering 101. In reality, the user has no idea what program is low risk or which program's activity constitutes a privacy threat. The "threat" level of these programs should be defined beforehand to provide real value to users, ensuring that they clearly understand what does and does not belong on their PC.

Afraid (and rightly so) of any program labeled anything but "No Threat," users blindly click "Remove," and the list of applications suddenly disappears. They then assume the computer is back to normal operating condition. However, in this process, numerous programs that may be used on a daily basis--programs that they have consented (hopefully through a clear download and consent process) to download--have been deleted.

Herein lies the challenge for legitimate companies that suffer from this careless mislabeling. The downloadable application provides a clear explanation of how the program works (the essence of the deal) in addition to easily understood opt-in and consent options, only to lose users as a result of aggressive scanning. One interesting double standard to point out here is if the user has to opt in to download the program, shouldn't the user therefore have to specifically opt in to it being removed as opposed to a one-click universal remove feature?

So what's the answer? That's the million-dollar question. A couple of weeks ago, Mediapost's Just an Online Minute was very critical of attempts to intervene if software companies try to stop adware programs. The problem with that column is that it assumes scanning applications always--or even mostly--get it right. We know from sad experience that this is not so.

180solutions has a full-time team dedicated to working with the scanning applications in an effort to educate them on our product's behavior on the desktop. Through these dealings, we aim to ensure proper and accurate labeling. Does it work? Sometimes. Coincidentally, we've seen the best response come from the big security players who, we can assume, aren't as concerned with relying on broad labeling and fear-mongering to keep their companies afloat. Unfortunately, in the circumstances when the business talks break down, the only other available avenue is litigation. Is this a direction we want move toward? Absolutely not, but it's a step we have to be willing to take in order to protect our brand and our users. What other choice do we have?

The bottom line here is that scanning applications have every right to tell the user exactly what is on their computer and to delete any program that the user chooses, so long as the scanning application provides clear and accurate explanations of what the programs in question actually are and do. Given the fact that some scanning applications will continue to create their own criteria (which some will share and some will keep a mystery) and refuse to engage in meaningful, substantive business discussions about that criteria, as a last resort downloadable applications may be forced to go to court to protect their brands. A legitimate industry standard for best practices is the only answer that can equitably solve this issue. As we all know, it's close to impossible to get an entire industry to agree on general principles, but until this happens and it is adopted universally, the fight between downloadable programs and scanning applications will rage on.

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