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Computer snooping a growing problem

Computer snooping a growing problem
Computer snooping a growing problem 

Staff Reporter  
July 7, 2005

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

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

"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

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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