US govt cracks down on spyware installers

The United States government has moved for the first time to block unsolicited circulation on the internet of spyware, a type of software that can inundate web users with pop-up ads, secretly take control of their computers and spy on their online activities.

The Federal Trade Commission announced here on Tuesday that it had used existing fair trade laws in asking a federal court to shut down some of the leading distributors of this cyberspace tool.

“Consumers dont deserve to be pestered and spied on by people who illegally hijack their computers,” said Lydia Parnes, acting director of the FTCs Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Were putting purveyors of spyware on notice: This is our first spyware case, but it won’t be our last.”

According to legal experts, there is no guarantee the trade legislation would be enough to clean the internet of the scourge of spyware that experts say may cause computers to malfunction, slow down, or even crash.

But US officials are said to be emboldened by recent advances of anti-spyware legislation in Congress and the growing consumer sentiment in favour of curbing the practice.

The lawsuit targets Seismic Entertainment Productions, a Rochester, New Hampshire-based company, Smartbot.Net, a firm from Richboro, Pennsylvania, and the man behind them: Sanford Wallace.

Court documents allege the defendants have operated websites that distribute spyware since last December, using a variety of tricks to direct consumers to them.

A contact with these sites usually resulted in spyware being sneaked into personal computers unbeknownst of their owners, the complaint said.

The spyware changed people’s home pages, search engines, exposed them to an avalanche of pop-ups and caused their computers to slow down or crash, resulting in a loss of data.

To add insult to injury, the companies then offered to fix the problem by selling affected consumers anti-spyware packages manufactured by another company for about $30 a pop, officials said.

The spyware gurus benefited by receiving a commission for each sale, the government alleged.

The commission charged the companies had engaged in unfair trade practices by downloading their product onto private computers without authorisation, causing serious harm, and then forcing consumers to pay to fix it.

Riding the wave of popular alarm over misuse of the internet, the US House of Representatives last week approved the so-called Spy Act requiring that consumers receive a clear and conspicuous notice before any spyware downloads.

The measure prohibits deceptive behavior such as key-stroke logging, computer highjacking, phishing and pop-up ads that cannot be closed.

Lawmakers expressed concern that some versions of spyware can enable intruders to gather personal data such as passwords and credit card numbers, which can then be sold for illegal purposes.

“Spyware is to computers what an open window is to burglars,” said Representative Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

A companion bill is awaiting passage in the Senate. - Sapa-AFP

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