(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Sophomore Chester Vincent considered himself tech-savvy. But after the pop-up ads appearing on his computer burdened the machine to the point where it refused to turn on, he threw it out and bought a new one.
“Every time I opened a web page, I got five other ones I didn’t want,” said the George Washington University student. “It was just ads constantly popping up.”
Vincent’s complaints are being echoed more often across college campuses as student computers are blasted with ads to the point where they stop working, sometimes for good.
The business of pummeling computer users with unwanted advertisements and tracking their movements across the Internet, known as the “spyware” or “adware” industry, has exploded in the past year to epidemic proportions, leaving legislators and industry experts scrambling for solutions and ordinary people trying to figure out what hit them.
“From 2000 on, we were seeing a lot of the adware makers borrowing tactics from what we would normally see with Trojan horses or viral installs,” said Wayne Porter, cofounder of Spywareguide.com. “At that point we felt it was a big problem.”
But the advertising method’s true profit potential was only discovered about a year ago, causing spyware’s proliferation to skyrocket.
“With the Trojan writers and the viral writers there’s no monetary incentive when they release their programs,” Porter said. But with the adware and spyware, there’s big money driving this, there’s whole development teams driving it.”
“People have found ways to make real money off of it so there is a real incentive for programmers to try and get software on people’s computers,” said Ari Schwarz, Associate Director of the privately run Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.
In a flagging economy, the money spyware can rake in for its creators is especially attractive. Perhaps as a result, spyware is now common to the point where PCs are becoming overwhelmed by ads.
“The reason it’s really come to a boiling point is before you might have had an adware application on your machine, but the resources you would have lost would have been minimal,” Porter said. “Now you have everyone and his brother manufacturing the software so that they’re literally paralyzing PCs because they’re all competing for the same limited resources.”
Congress and some state legislatures have bans in the works and industry groups are educating consumers and using technology to fight the spyware scourge. A solution will ultimately involve a combination of tough law enforcement and innovative engineering, according to experts.
“The Federal Trade Commission has picked up on some of the work that we’ve done in terms of researching some of the more malicious spyware and holding its makers accountable,” Schwarz said.
Schwarz said legislation allowing criminal penalties for spyware producers would do the most to discourage its use. But the consensus among electronics industry experts doubts the government’s ability to put an end to spyware.
“Legislation just doesn’t move fast enough to even begin. It’s like hitting a moving target,” Porter said. “The most elegant solution will have to have to be technological.”
While the government and software industries grapple with the spyware problem, individual users are beginning to take steps in protecting their own PCs.
“(Spyware) tends to be installed by people who use peer-to-peer networks, they tend to come into contact with this more frequently,” Porter said.
“If you’re going to be using the more mainstream browsers, you have to be more alert, more protective and more knowledgeable,” Schwarz said.
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