Spyware Removal Utility Sparks Privacy Debate

A new anti-snooping utility launched Monday promises to be as controversial as the adware programs it attempts to defeat.

Responding to recent concerns that some ad-supported Internet software is spying on users while they’re online, Gibson Research Corp. has released a free, preview version of the OptOut Internet spyware detection and removal utility.

The initial release of OptOut searches a PC’s system registry and hard disk for evidence of ad server technology developed by Radiate Inc., formerly known as Aureate Media. Like a similar offering from Conducent Technology, Radiate’s software is bundled by software-developer partners. Periodically, Radiate’s ad daemon pulls down banners from a server on the Internet, caches them on the user’s hard disk, and then displays them in a special window in the freeware utility or application. Radiate partners earn a cut of the ad revenue.

Last month, Radiate became the subject of hot debate in newsgroups and mailing lists over what, if any, traffic is being sent by its software in the other direction, back up to the server. Although Radiate has attemptedto defuse accusations that its software tracks online habits, its public relations problems have proven intractable.

“There’s a tremendous potential for Internet connection abuse. I want to be a mover on this issue. We have to have someone watching this type of software so that publishers don’t get carried away with what they think they have a right to do with a user’s Internet connection,” said GRC President Steve Gibson.

Radiate officials Monday criticized Gibson for further fanning privacy fears with OptOut. Radiate VP of marketing Jeff Ready fingered a screen within the software which claims Radiate’s technology operates secretly whenever users browse the Internet, reporting on their usage patterns, downloading new advertisements, and sending back user demographic data.

“We’re simply delivering advertisements, but he makes it sound like we are tracking where you surf. That may be what he thinks is going on, but it isn’t,” said Ready.

Radiate, which is majority-back by CMGI@Ventures, claims to have more than 18 million registered customers who have installed the 400 ad-supported programs that use its technology, including the popular CuteFTP, Go!Zilla, and GetRight utilities.

Jim Lilly, an OptOut user and assistant manager of the PC hardware forum on CompuServe, said Monday a number of members have complained about difficulties removing the Radiate software. Others report that registering the ad-supported program doesn’t stop Radiate’s technology from continuing to make connections to its ad server over the Internet.

“They don’t like all those little spider legs in your computer — the DLLs and registry entries. If that stuff was removed when the program was registered, probably few would complain,” Lilly said.

Ready acknowledged that some of the uninstall utilities used by Radiate’s partners fail to properly remove the Radiate DLLs. To correct this situation, last week Radiate released its own utility for removing the appropriate files.

Radiate has also posted a warning at its site that using utilities like OptOut may result in system instability. Gibson, however, said he’s had no reports of system problems from the use of OptOut, although a similar adware cleaning program in circulation, AntiSpy, may erroneously delete some necessary system files, according to Gibson.

“I absolutely don’t want to be responsible for damaging Radiate for any statement I’m making, but it’s sloppy programming and it deliberately leaves itself behind,” said Gibson.

Since a beta version was posted last week, OptOut has been downloaded more than 18,000 times. Its popularity may raise serious questions about the viability of the ad-supported software business model. But Ready says it’s too soon to tell whether the furor over Radiate’s technology will hurt its business.

“Software developers are entirely capable of taking a look at it and seeing what is going on. The long-term impacts are yet to be seen, but so far, it hasn’t been a case where people are jumping ship,” said Ready.

Gibson expects to update OptOut to detect and clean programs from Conducent and Comet Cursor, as well as any new adware programs that are released.

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