Mr. Ari Schwartz
Center for Democracy and Technology
1634 I Street N.W.Suite 1100
Washington, DC, 20006
Spyware: What You
Don't Know Can Hurt You
Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection
April 29, 2004
Chairman Sterns and Ranking Member Schakowsky, thank you for holding
this hearing on spyware, an issue of growing concern for consumers
and businesses alike. CDT is pleased to have the opportunity to
CDT is a non-profit, public interest organization dedicated to
preserving and promoting privacy and other democratic values and
civil liberties on the Internet. CDT has been widely-recognized
as a leader in the policy debate about
the issues raised by so-called "spyware" applications. We have been
engaged in the early legislative, regulatory, and self-regulatory efforts to
deal with the spyware problem, and have been active in public education efforts
through the press and our own grassroots network.
In our testimony today, we hope to address two questions: What is spyware?
how should we respond to it?
In Section B of our testimony below, we attempt to help define
the spyware problem. CDT's report "Ghosts in Our Machines: Background and
Policy Proposals on the 'Spyware' Problem," released in November 2003, addresses
this issue. The report describes the range of invasive software applications
referred to as "spyware" and clarifies the privacy, transparency and
user control issues raised by these rogue programs.
Additionally, over the last six months, CDT has led discussions
of a Consumer Software Working Group that includes leading members
of the Internet industry, advertising companies, public interest
groups and academics in order to identify examples the worst practices
that consumers are facing online. In our testimony today, we highlight
some of the pertinent issues raised by the working group, summarize
the findings of CDT's report, and describe some of CDT's subsequent
research and ongoing efforts in these areas.
In Section C, we turn to potential responses to the spyware problem.
CDT sees three major areas where action is necessary to stem the
disturbing trend toward a loss of control and transparency for
1) Enforcement of existing laws could go a long way toward reducing
the problem of spyware. While longstanding fraud statutes already
cover many of the issues raised by these applications, currently
they are rarely enforced against
spyware programmers and distributors.
2) Fundamental to the issue of spyware is the overarching concern
about online Internet privacy. Legislation to address the collection
and sharing of information on the Internet would resolve many of
the privacy issues raised by spyware. If we do not deal with the
broad Internet privacy concerns now, in the context of spyware,
we will undoubtedly find ourselves confronted by them yet again
when they are raised anew by some other, as yet unanticipated,
3) To be effective, legislation and enforcement approaches will
have to be carried out concurrently with better consumer education,
industry self-regulation and the development of new anti-spyware
We address each of these avenues in turn.
B. Defining and Understanding "Spyware" and "Adware"
"Spyware" has no precise definition. The term has been applied to everything
from keystroke loggers, to advertising applications that track users' web browsing,
to web cookies, to programs designed to help provide security patches directly
to users. "Spyware" programs can be installed on users' computers in
a variety of ways, and they can have widely differing
What these programs have in common is a lack of transparency and
an absence of respect for users' ability to control their own computers
While many programs that have been called "spyware" are
advertising software, CDT has emphasized that there is nothing
inherently objectionable about ad-support as a business model.
We highlight email applications, such as Eudora, that are successful
and user-friendly examples of ad-supported software.
However, in many cases, the revenue that these applications provide
has given software distributors the incentive to push them onto
users' computers using deceptive or fraudulent means. Ad-support
can and must be implemented in a way that is transparent to users
and respects their choices and privacy preferences.
Distribution of Spyware
"Spyware" programs can be distributed in a variety of ways. For example,
they may be bundled with other free applications, including peer-to-peer file
sharing applications; they may be distributed through deceptive download practices;
or they may be installed by exploiting security holes in the web browser or operating
system on a user's computer. In some
cases, once one "spyware" application has gained access to a user's
computer, it will surreptitiously download and install other applications.
In each of these scenarios, users generally do not know that the
software is being installed. And once these invasive applications
are on a user's computer they can be difficult or impossible to
find and remove.
Effects of Spyware
As mentioned above, the overarching concerns raised by spyware applications
are transparency and user control. Within these broad categories, spyware
can raise a host of specific concerns.
· These programs can change the appearance of websites, modify
users' "start" and "search" pages in their
browsers, or change low level system settings. In our complaint
to the FTC against MailWiper and Seismic Entertainment Productions,
filed in February, CDT asked the Commission to investigate one
particularly egregious example of such "browser
· Spyware programs are also often responsible for significant
reductions in computer performance and system stability. In many
cases, consumers mistakenly assume that the problem is with another
application or with their Internet provider, placing a substantial
burden on the support departments of providers of those legitimate
applications and services.
· Spyware programs can track users' online activities. Some gather
personally identifiable information. The most egregious forms of
spyware can capture all keystrokes, or record periodic screenshots
from a user's computer.
· Even in cases where spyware programs transmit no personally
identifiable information, their hidden, unauthorized appropriation
of users' computing resources and Internet connections threatens
the security of computers and the integrity of online communications.
The "auto-update" component of many of these applications
can create major new security vulnerabilities by including capabilities
to automatically download and install additional pieces of code
without notifying users or asking for their consent, typically
minimal security safeguards.
CDT is currently conducting technical and public opinion research
on the spyware issue. We hope to continue to report the results
of this work to the
Committee as we learn more.
C. Possible Responses to Spyware Concerns
Combating the most invasive spyware technologies will require a combination
of approaches. First and foremost, vigorous enforcement of existing anti-fraud
should result in a significant reduction of the spyware problem.
Addressing the problem of spyware also offers an important opportunity
to establish in law baseline standards for privacy for online collection
and sharing of data. Providing these protections would not only
address the privacy concerns that current forms of spyware raise,
but would put in place standards that would apply to future technologies
that might challenge online privacy. Anti-spyware tools, better
consumer education, and self-regulatory policies are also all necessary
elements of a spyware solution.
Legislation to establish standards for privacy, notice, and consent
specifically for software, such as H.R.2929, currently before this
Committee, may play an important role as well. The challenge to
such efforts is in crafting language that effectively addresses
the spyware issue without unnecessarily burdening legitimate software
developers or unintentionally hindering
So far the efforts to address the spyware issue are all in very
preliminary stages. They will each require cooperation among government,
private sector, and
public interest initiatives.
Enforcement of Existing Law
CDT believes that three existing federal laws already prohibit many of the
invasive or deceptive practices employed by malevolent software makers. Better
enforcement of these statutes could have an immediate positive effect on
Title 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act is most directly applicable
to the most common varieties of spyware. We believe that many of
the more invasive forms of spyware discussed above clearly fall
under the FTC's jurisdiction over unfair and deceptive trade practices.
Some of these practices are highlighted in the Appendix - the Consumer
Software Working Group's Examples of Unfair, Deceptive or Devious
Practices Involving Software. To our knowledge, the FTC so far
has not brought any major actions against spyware makers or spyware
distributing companies. In February, CDT filed a complaint with
the FTC against two companies for engaging in browser hijacking
to display deceptive advertisements to consumers for software sold
by one of the companies.
We believe that one of the most immediate ways in which Congress
could have a positive impact on the spyware problem is by directing
the FTC to increase enforcement against unfair and deceptive practices
in the use or distribution of downloadable software and by providing
increased resources for such efforts.
Several laws besides the FTC Act may also have relevance. The
Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which makes illegal
the interception of communications without a court order or permission
of one of the parties, may cover programs that collect click-through
data and other web browsing information without consent. The Computer
Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) also applies to some uses of spyware.
Distributing programs by exploiting security vulnerabilities in
network software, co-opting control of users' computers, or exploiting
their Internet connection can constitute violations of the CFAA,
especially in cases where spyware programs are used to steal passwords
In addition to federal laws, many states have long-standing fraud
statutes that would allow state attorneys general to take action
against invasive or deceptive software. Like their federal counterparts,
these laws have not been
strongly enforced to date.
CDT has argued that the most effective way to address the spyware problem through
legislation is in the context of online privacy generally. Specifically,
we believe that the privacy dimension of spyware would best be addressed
through baseline Internet privacy legislation that is applicable to online
information collection and sharing irrespective of the technology or application.
CDT has advocated such legislation before the Senate Commerce Committee and
in other fora. Until we address the online privacy concern, new privacy issues
as we encounter new online technologies and applications.
Still, software may pose some unique problems. A comprehensive
legislative solution to spyware may need to address the user-control
aspects of the issue such as piggybacking, and avoiding uninstallation.
H.R. 2929 before this Committee represents an important acknowledgement
of several of these problems. We appreciate the desire to craft
targeted legislation focusing on some of the specific problems
raised by spyware, and CDT commends Representatives Bono and Towns
for bringing attention to this important issue.
At the same time, we wish to emphasize the complexity of such
efforts. The broad industry opposition to an anti-spyware bill
recently passed in the Utah legislature, based on potential unintended
consequences of the bill for legitimate software companies, demonstrates
the difficulties that can be introduced by such legislation if
it is not carefully drafted. We know Representatives Bono and Towns
have been looking hard at some of the specific definitional concerns
raised by CDT and others, and we look forward to continuing to
work with the Committee on this bill.
Technology measures, self-regulation and user education must work in concert,
and will be critical components of any spyware solution. Companies must do
a better job of helping users understand and control how their computers
and Internet connections are used, and users must become better educated
to protect themselves from spyware.
The first step is development of industry best practices for downloadable
software. Although not all software manufacturers will abide by
best practices, certification programs will allow consumers to
quickly identify those that do and to avoid those that do not.
In the current environment consumers cannot easily determine which
programs post a threat, especially as doing so can involve wading
through long and unwieldy licensing agreements.
Technologies to deal with invasive applications and related privacy
issues are in various stages of development. Several programs exist
that will search a hard-drive for these applications and attempt
to delete them. Some companies are experimenting with ways to prevent
installation of the programs in the first place. However, even
these technologies encounter difficulties in determining which
applications to block or remove. Clear industry best practices
in this regard as well.
Standards such as the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) may
also play an important role in technical efforts to increase transparency
and provide users with greater control over their computers and
their personal information. P3P is a specification developed by
the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to allow websites to publish
standard, machine-readable statements of their privacy policies
for easy access by a user's browser. If developed further, standards
like P3P could help facilitate privacy best practices to allow
users and anti-spyware technologies distinguish legitimate software
from unwanted or invasive
The IT industry has initially been slow to undertake such efforts.
However, increasing public concern about spyware and the growing
burden placed on the providers of legitimate software by these
invasive applications has led to more industry attention on this
front. The Consumer Software Working Group, including major Internet
service providers, software companies, and hardware manufacturers,
has expressed its view that this area is ripe for industry self-regulation
and best practices.
CDT believes Congress can have an immediate positive impact by
industry to continue to follow through on these efforts.
Users should have control over what programs are installed on their computers
and over how their Internet connections are used. They should be able to
rely on a predictable web-browsing experience and to remove for any reason
and at any time programs they don't want. The widespread proliferation of
applications takes away this control.
Better consumer education, industry self-regulation, and new anti-spyware
tools are all key to addressing this problem. New laws, if carefully
crafted, may also have a role to play. Many spyware practices,
however, are already illegal. Even before passing new legislation,
existing fraud statutes should be robustly enforced against the
distributors of these programs.
The potential of the Internet will be substantially harmed if
users come to believe that they cannot use the Internet without
being at risk of infection from spyware applications. We must find
creative ways to address this problem through law, technology,
public education and industry initiatives if the Internet is to
continue to flourish.
Appendix: Examples of Unfair, Deceptive or Devious Practices Involving Software
Consumer Software Working Group
The Consumer Software Working Group is a diverse community of
public interest groups, software companies, Internet service providers,
hardware manufacturers, and others that are seeking consensus responses
to the concerns raised by
practices that harm consumers.
Over the past several years, a subset of computer software referred
to as "spyware" has become the subject of growing public
concern. Computer users increasingly find programs on their computers
that they did not know were installed, that create risks to privacy,
that open security holes, that impair the performance and stability
of their systems, that frustrate their attempts to uninstall or
disable the programs, or that lead them to mistakenly believe that
these problems are the fault of another application or their Internet
There is agreement that these practices can raise serious concerns.
At the same time, the wide range of and lack of clarity in attempted
definitions for the types of software practices that most concern
consumers hamper attempts at self-regulatory, technological and
legislative responses. Many definitions of spyware in circulation
today are either under-inclusive in important respects or, more
commonly, overbroad so that they include practices that clearly
consumers, or both.
The Center for Democracy and Technology convened the Consumer
Software Working Group. Companies, public interest groups or academics
joining the Working Group should contact Ari Schwartz <email@example.com>, Michael
Steffen <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or John Morris <email@example.com> at the
Center for Democracy and Technology.
Examples of Unfair, Deceptive or Devious Practices Involving Software
The Consumer Software Working Group is concerned about a specific
set of devious, deceptive or unfair practices that adversely affect
consumers online. While the following list of examples is not nearly
complete, it describes a series of activities and behaviors that
the Group considers to be clearly
Specifically, the Group identifies three broad types of practices
where abuses occur today. Most of these practices may be illegal
under current law, depending on the specific facts of the particular
case. Within each area, we offer illustrative examples, based on
real cases. We note that each of the objectionable behaviors we
identify has constructive consumer-friendly counterparts when carried
out with proper notice and consent and in ways that give consumers
control. Automatic installation, personalization and tracking,
and in some cases resistance to uninstallation can provide important
We hope that this list of objectionable practices will help to
focus technical, self-regulatory, regulatory and law enforcement
efforts to protect consumers from inappropriate activities in a
more targeted and effective manner, while avoiding unintended negative
consequences for good actors and consumers alike. The Working Group
believes that this is an area that could be ripe for self-regulatory
efforts to craft industry principles to protect consumers and the
1) Hijacking - The practices described in this section are objectionable
to the extent that they enable an unaffiliated person to use the
user's computer in a way that ordinarily would not be expected.
This may occur through an unnoticed program consuming the user's
computing resources or resetting a user's existing configurations
without the user's knowledge, or through coercion or deception.
Example: A computer user sees an Internet advertisement for Program
A. The user clicks on the ad and is sent to a page that pops up
a window asking if the user wants to download Program A. The user
clicks "no," but Program A is eventually downloaded and
Example: A computer user sees an Internet advertisement for Product
B. The user clicks on the advertisement, and is sent to a page
that informs the user
that "Program C is needed to view this Web page." This leads the user
to believe that Program C is necessary to view the site about Product B, so the
user clicks "yes" and the program is downloaded and installed. In fact,
Program C is not necessary to view the website for Product B and the user is
never informed of the actual reason why Program C was installed.
Example: A computer user sees an Internet advertisement for Program
D. The user clicks on the ad, and she is sent to a page that immediately
pops up a window asking if she wants to download Program D. The
user clicks "no." This happens repeatedly until the user
gets frustrated and
Example: A computer user receives an Internet advertisement for
Product E as part of a webpage he is looking at. Simply as a result
of loading the ad, Software Program F wholly unrelated to Product
E is downloaded onto the user's computer. No notice or opportunity
to consent to download Software Program F was
Example: While browsing the Internet, a computer user is offered
the opportunity to download and install Software Program G. Using
a fraudulently obtained digital certificate, the download request
falsely identifies Software Program G as being from the user's
trusted Internet Service Provider, H. In fact, the Program is not
from Internet Service Provider H, and has no relation to the ISP.
However, based on its claimed affiliation with H, the user agrees
let the program be downloaded and installed.
Example: A computer user loads Company I's Web page. The Web page
opens another page running a java script. When the user closes
Company I's Web page, the java script page covertly resets the
user's homepage without obtaining
Example: A computer user loads Company J's Web page. The Web page
opens another page running a java script. When the user closes
Company J's Web page, the java script page covertly resets the
user's homepage. The java script is written such that any time
the user attempts to reset his homepage, the program automatically
resets it again so the user cannot reset his homepage to what it
was before the hijacking took place.
Example: A computer user downloads Software Package K. Among the
programs in Software Package K is a dialer application that was
not mentioned in any advertisements, software licenses, or consumer
notices associated with the package or in information provided
in conjunction with the ongoing operations of the package. The
dialer application is not an integral part of Software Package
K. When the user opens her Web browser after installation of Software
Package K, the dialer opens in a hidden window, turns off the sound
of the user's computer, and calls a phone number without the user's
Example: A computer user is sent Software Package L as an attachment
to an unsolicited commercial email message. There is no documentation
for Software Package L. Included in Software Package L is Program
M that sends a message to Computer N. Computer N then uses Program
M on the user's computer as a means to send out unsolicited commercial
2) Surreptitious surveillance - The practices described in this
section are objectionable to the extent that they involve intrusive
and surreptitious collection and use of personally identifiable
information about users that is wholly unrelated to the purpose
of the software as described to the consumer.
Example: A computer user downloads Software Package P. Software
Package P contains a keystroke logger unrelated to any functions
described to the user. The keystroke logger records all information
input on the user's computer and sends this information on to another
computer user. The first user is not informed about the operation
of the keystroke logger.
Example: Program Q advertises itself as a search tool bar. A user
downloads Program Q to gain the search functionalities. Program
Q installs a tool bar, but - once installed - also mines the user's
registry and other programs for personally identifiable information
about the user unrelated to the search functionality and without
informing the user or obtaining consent. When the user connects
to the Internet, Program Q sends this information back to the company
that makes Program Q.
3) Inhibiting termination - The practices described in this section
are objectionable to the extent that they frustrate consumers'
efforts to remove a program, deactivate it or otherwise render
it inoperative. Generally, these practices are intended to prevent
the user from severing or terminating a relationship with the provider
of the program.
Example: A computer user downloads Software Package S. Software
Package S contains Advertising Program T. Advertising Program T
sends the user pop-up ads while the user is surfing the Web even
if no other programs in Software Package S are running. The pop-up
ads are not labeled as related to Advertising Program T or Software
Package S in any way and there is no other way to find the ads'
origin. The user is concerned about the increase in pop-up ads,
but does not know whether they are caused by Program T or are from
the Web sites that he is visiting. The user has no means to find
out the origin of the ads in order to make a decision about uninstalling
Example: A computer user downloads Software Package U. As initially
disclosed to the user, Software Package U contains a mandatory
program, Advertising Program V, which is bundled as a way to generate
revenue and pay for the development of Software Package U only.
When the user uninstalls Software Package U, the user is not given
a clear opportunity to uninstall Program V at that time, and Advertising
Program V stays on the user's computer.
Example: A computer user downloads Gaming Program W. The user
wants to remove Gaming Program W from the computer. Gaming Program
W does not have an uninstall program or instructions and does not
show up in the standard feature in the user's operating system
that removes unwanted programs (assuming this feature exists in
the operating system). The user's attempts to otherwise delete
Program W are met by confusing prompts from Program W with misrepresentative
statements that deleting the program will make all future operations
Example: A computer user downloads Program X. The user wants to
remove Program X from the computer. Program X appears in the standard
feature in the user's operating system that removes unwanted programs.
However, when the user
utilizes the "remove" option in the operating system, a component of
Program X remains behind. The next time the user connects to the Internet, this
component re-downloads the remainder of Program X and reinstalls it.
The following companies, organizations and individuals have worked to describe
Examples of Unfair, Deceptive and Devious Practices Involving Software. These
descriptions can be used to help focus technical, self-regulatory, regulatory
and law enforcement efforts to protect consumers from inappropriate activities.
Business Software Alliance
Center for Democracy and Technology
Consortium of Anti-Spyware Technology Vendors
Distributed Computing Industry Association
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Information Technology Industry Council
Internet Commerce Coalition
Network Advertising Initiative
Peter Swire, Moritz College of Law of the Ohio State University