This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
So, you're sitting down with your family to watch a movie. You turn on the TV and up pops an extra loud ad for miracle sex enhancement powder complete with busty vixens. You change the channel, but the channel won't change. You hit the power button, but the TV stays on and so does the ad.
This happens all the time. But it happens with computers, not televisions.
If America's TVs were hijacked like that, there would be riots in the streets and blood in the boardrooms. It would be an intolerable scandal.
If media consumers don't develop an ornery intolerance, and fast, of what is essentially the wiretapping of computers, a new breed of cyber crooks disguised as marketers will be unleashed to steal more identities, invade more privacy, and commandeer more PCs. And eventually they will invade your TV, your PDA, your telephone and, well, your soul.
The enemy within the box you are staring at right now is called spyware. There are lots of different kinds of spyware and no neat, legalese definition of what spyware is. But like pornography, you know it when you see it. A working definition: spyware is software that is intentionally hidden on personal computers, designed to stay hidden and do things consumers don't know about, things that are unwanted or malicious.
There are plenty of ways spyware can infiltrate your computer and someone has probably figured out a new route this afternoon. Some computers are shipped with spyware. You can get it from downloading music, games or screensavers. You can get it from spam or simply visiting certain Web sites. Bottom line: only about one in 10 computers do not have spyware on them.
The most common kind of spyware is called adware (arguably, not all adware is spyware, but that's semantics). Adware will usually cause unwanted pop-up ads to pollute your screen when you're on the Web (pop-ups not delivered by the sites you chose to visit). It might replace the ads publishers have sold on their sites with ads the spyware puts there. The spyware might change your homepage, direct you to sites you don't want to go to or put new features on your toolbar. This spyware can also send information about what you're doing on your computer back to the spying masters.
That makes you feel safe and secure, doesn't it? Well, wait. There's worse, it's called snoopware. Snoopware can capture every key you stroke and send the data back to the spyware's sponsor. That means every e-mail you dispatch, every instant message you send, every e-commerce transaction and every cyber move you make can be spied on. Employers can use this to spy on workers, co-workers on office enemies, wives on husbands, parents on kids and cyber crooks on all of us.
Adware is a nuisance and a privacy violation. Snoopware is a profound privacy violation. Privacy, and Internet privacy in particular, is a boring, ACLU-type, semi-paranoid issue to most people. Big mistake.
Most of us think that if you're careful with your credit card number and don't skulk around kiddie porn sites and neo-Nazi chat rooms, Web privacy is no biggie. But increasingly, people are using computers and the Web to deal with job and health benefits, prescriptions, pensions, investments and kids away from home. You may never give out your Visa number and lead a life that would make John Calvin seem like Hugh Hefner, and you still have things you don't want a crook to know about.
Getting "spywared" is also creepy. I figured out that I had adware on my machine in January. I quickly ran the anti-spyware programs our tech wizards at work recommended and found out I was massively infected. From January until last night, I've removed 1,053 spyware files - data miners, malware, tracking files and Trojan horses. I have a pop-up blocker, a firewall and never download anything. Despite that rather extreme vigilance, I still have adware-generated pop-ups hawking concert tickets and, believe or not, spyware prevention kits.
A few years ago, our house was being robbed when the police rather heroically caught the crooks. So nothing was actually lost, though the house was ransacked. It felt like a violation and was unsettling. Knowing I have all this spying stuff in my computer does not feel very different.
As cell phones, televisions, home security systems, PDAs and other technologies become more connected to the Internet and remote interactions, the potential for expanded spying is obvious.
But what most concerns me is this kind of criminality in commerce. Some spyware is probably illegal right now, some is probably legal. All of it is unethical. All of it is malicious. Like spam, spyware, even in its least toxic form, does not respect the consumer's right to control choice and relies on subterfuge. Spyware should be illegal and stopped.
Merchants of spyware, in my view, belong to a predator class of capitalists. They are cousins of the corrupt mutual fund executives now coming to justice, the corporate rapists now clogging the courts, and the ones who won't be caught. I also believe the predator class is larger, better trained and more professional than in times past.
And that is exactly why the spyware that's probably on the computer you're looking at right now isn't just a worry for geeks and civil liberties zealots.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer