Spyware, Adware… What to Do?

Spyware is killing us. And maybe adware is, too.

That’s because most people — even most people in the interactive marketing community — have a hard time understanding the difference between spyware and adware.

For some of us, the difference is simple: Spyware is something you never want to recommend to clients. Adware is something you’re reluctant to recommend to clients, yet the lines have been blurred and continue to blur.

Even a resource as tuned in as Webopedia has a hard time telling the difference. Here’s how Webopedia describes spyware and adware (emphasis mine):

Spyware: (n.) Any software that covertly gathers user information through the user’s Internet connection without his or her knowledge, usually for advertising purposes. Spyware applications are typically bundled as a hidden component of freeware or shareware programs that can be downloaded from the Internet; however, it should be noted that the majority of shareware and freeware applications do not come with spyware. Once installed, the spyware monitors user activity on the Internet and transmits that information in the background to someone else. Spyware can also gather information about email addresses and even passwords and credit card numbers.

Adware: (n.) (1) A form of spyware that collects information about the user in order to display advertisements in the Web browser based on the information it collects from the user’s browsing patterns.

See also The Difference Between Adware & Spyware in the Did You Know…? section of Webopedia.

(2) Software that is given to the user with advertisements already embedded in the application.

It’s pretty scary that Webopedia doesn’t differentiate or suggest one is more legitimate than the other.

Here’s another way spyware/adware hits home, outside the normal spheres of our profession. I’m sure this is a familiar situation to many in the interactive marketing business.

You pay a visit to a relative and, because you “work on computers,” you’re recruited as the tech support guru. The problem I usually hear is: “I get all these pop-ups on my computer. Make them stop.” Or, “My computer is acting all weird now. Make it stop.” After some investigating, you realize the problems stem from adware, spyware, or both that’s installed on the machine.

I spoke with Matt Nelson, public relations manager for Geeks on Call. The company provides outsourced IT help for homes and small and medium-sized businesses that don’t need, or cannot afford, full-time IT help. They get the “My computer is acting weird” call a lot, too.

“A lot of the problems we see are related to spyware,” Nelson said. “It’s a large problem, and it’s growing. It’s nasty out there. It’s getting to the point where you as a user will have to have anti-spyware software installed on your machine, the same as you do anti-virus software.”

I asked Nelson what the marketing industry could do to make the situation better.

“Disseminate information about adware and spyware as much as possible. There’s a lot of lack of information out there, as well as misinformation,” he said. “There are a lot of smart people out there who have no idea what to do in terms of computer security. People don’t know what they need to do to protect their computers. The growing trend of identity theft has made people more cautious. As people become aware of the fact that identity theft could mean that they’re faced with possible bankruptcy, people are becoming more concerned about the problem and interested in finding out what they can do about it.”

These comments illustrate the problem from the consumer’s standpoint. So, what can we as agencies and advertisers do about it?

First, don’t advertise on spyware.

Second, institute policies and inform clients of the potential negative consumer perception of using adware. Again, most people don’t know or care that adware is different from spyware. If you’re going to use adware, ensure the application adheres to these guidelines:

  • Provide full disclosure. The adware provider should make it clear to users that the application will run on their PCs and will deliver advertising. By “clear,” I mean users should have no doubt about what they’re installing and what they should expect. It should also be very clear to users what behavior will be tracked and how it will be used or shared with third parties.

  • Require double opt-in. This has long been standard practice with legitimate email marketers. Why not adopt double opt-in for adware as well? If an adware application truly provides value to the user, the user will be willing to double opt in.
  • Don’t hide. Whenever the application serves the user an advertising message, make sure the user knows where the ad is coming from. Too often, users don’t realize pop-ups are coming from adware rather than the sites they’re surfing. Adware companies should make sure users can tell the difference.
  • Make the program easy to uninstall. Again, if the application provides value, the user will continue to use it. However, in the event a user wishes to uninstall the application, please, please, please make it easy to uninstall.

I’m sure you have strong feelings about spyware, adware, or both. I’d really like to hear what you think. And I’ll ask again: what can we, as agencies and advertisers, do about the adware/spyware situation?

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