Computer snooping a growing problem

July 7, 2005

BY DAVE NEWBART Staff Reporter

One person "lost everything.'' For someone else, everything "just shut down.''

These people were not reciting the impact of a hurricane or tornado. Rather, they were telling what happened when their computers became infected by programs known as spyware.

The comments, part of a study released Wednesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, show just how big a problem spyware has become to the nation's estimated 135 million Internet users. The project surveyed 2,000 people by phone in May and June.

The study's authors defined spyware as tracking software that is secretly placed on a computer. The programs can significantly slow a computer, route it to Web sites you don't want to visit or cause an annoying stream of ads to pop up.

The study found that spyware has disrupted the computer lives of 43 percent of surfers. That means an estimated 59 million people have spyware or adware on their computers, the study found. Adware is defined as tracking programs that come bundled with other software and that users knowingly download, although they don't necessarily want the adware.

But the problem could be even bigger. A study released last year found that 80 percent of users actually had such spyware or adware on their computers.

"There is a trust gap,'' said Douglas Sabo, a member of the board of directors for the National Cyber Security Alliance, which did that study. Consumers believe they are safer than they actually are, he said.

Whatever the number, the threat has caused more than nine of 10 users to alter their online behavior, either by not visiting certain Web sites, not downloading music or video files or not opening e-mail attachments, the Pew survey found.

How to fight back

"They scale back on what they are doing online,'' said Susannah Fox, who authored the study.

But many surfers could do even more to protect themselves, like using anti-spyware software, virus-protection programs and firewalls

And few surfers actually read user agreements that appear before they download free stuff from the net. Those agreements often spell out in fine type that adware is a part of the deal.

To demonstrate how few read the agreements, one Web site offered $1,000 to the first person who read the agreement in full and wrote in. Some 3,000 people downloaded the agreement before anyone claimed the money, the Pew study said.

Averaged $129 to fix it

Fox said 90 percent of users want better notice of adware. Sixty percent said they would have paid for the software if they knew it came with adware.

Those whose computers have been slowed down or even hijacked by spyware spent an average of $129 to fix a problem, she said.

Bob Bulmash, founder of Private Citizen, a privacy advocacy group in Naperville, said the federal government needs to do more to stop the purveyors of spyware. "It spies on who we are,'' he said. "It's the most grievous type of theft.''

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