Friday, July 01, 2005

Let Me Make A Prediction...

Those of you who own computers may have recently begun to encounter a plague called "spyware", adding onto the virus concerns users have had for awhile. I'll use my soap box to make a prediction.

At the moment, the industry seems content to tolerate spammers and spyware programs (though Microsoft has pressured spammers, even going so far as to target the air supply: After all, those things make money.

So why do they target viruses? Well, for one, because one can't make much money off of viruses (aside from terrorist sales), but also crucially: viruses target functions that make money.

Right now, spyware is supported by ignorance. A Slate article alleges, "These afflictions [spyware and malware] stem from a thorny cultural problem: The entire software industry has been designed around our computer illiteracy. That isn't an easy, or even a possible, thing to change." I disagree both that one can't change this nor do I concur that there's no way around the problem, but there is definitely something there.

Adware used on savvy users can actually hurt a company. When a hoax alleging that Mozilla was a spyware program came out, it did some damage to the alternative web browser, mostly among those with the expertise and time to check various computer sites. But adware used on poorly trained users gets valuable information.

However, as the Internet becomes more and more ubiquitous and more and more profitable (and to say this a decade into the online revolution seems strange, but surely not after the bubble burst), companies will begin to oppose spyware for a very good reason: It hurts them.

Such programs make beginners scared of going onto the Internet or downloading programs.
They also chew up both computer and connection bandwidth, bandwidth that could be making companies money. There's even a small industry involved in using unused computer cycles to perform calculations.

At the moment, anti-spyware laws that are drafted either die before passage or are modified to be so toothless that companies find loopholes or don't even bother to modify their behavior. Further, the guys who create this stuff can be hard to find, especially if laws make a black market.

We've already seen Microsoft acquire an anti-spyware program, Giant, as part of its product pedigree. I imagine that enlightened self-interested industry pressure will help to make laws that actually have money to enforce and the type of rules to hurt the industry.

After all, the data that's being collected usually isn't just for fun: it's designed to make money for industries. So where the real enforcement spine will be found is going after the companies in bed with the malware producers.

Of course, we can help speed up this move as consumers by putting pressure on sites that host (unknowingly or not) adware, companies that bundle it, other corporations who stand idly by or profit, and the government.

(And, as a passing aside: Spyware is just another capitalist problem, showing that even the right to property is not as powerful as one might think if one is weak by some vector. Just like the recent Supreme Court decision allowing eminent domain to extend to taking away property for private development.


A good piece on anti-spyware programs, particularly bogus ones:

A general piece from an enterprise perspective:

"Us Like Spies" by


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