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February 13, 2003

The sincerest form of flattery
By: Mike Healan

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Nicolas Stark of Lavasoft and Patrick Kolla of PepiMK Software don't feel the least bit honored by companies they both claim are illegally copying their work. Stark and Kolla are the developers behind the two most popular spyware removal programs in the world, Ad-aware and Spybot S&D. Both developers have issued statements in the last few days indicating that their software has been reverse engineered and copied by various companies.

Earlier this week, Kolla posted a statement at the Spybot support forums accusing Trek Blue's SpywareNuker and BulletProofSoft's Spyware Remover of using a hacked copy of Spybot's encrypted target database. The target databases of BPS Spyware Remover and Trek Blue SpywareNuker both contain flaws that are also present in Spybot's database. The flaws are small things, such as one target which is detected under the wrong name as well as some targets present in Spybot's database which do not actually exist. Developers often introduce harmless flaws such as these into their software to identify unauthorized copies. Allegedly both SpywareNuker and BPS have the exact same errors and non-existent targets in their databases. Kolla has stated his intention to file lawsuits against both TrekBlue and BulletProofSoft for copyright infringement.

I've discussed Spyware Nuker before. I won't link to the web site since the home page loads an activex script which installs the program, possibly without prompting if security settings are set too low. At one point SpywareNuker was being labeled spyware and was even added to Spybot's database as a spyware target.

Lavasoft's owner Nicolas Stark has posted a similar statement at Lavasoft's support forums saying that BulletProofSoft's Spyware Remover and another program called Spycleaner are reversed engineered copies of the older 5.8x version of Ad-aware. Stark points out that both BPS Spyware Remover and Topdownload's Spycleaner have an interface that is nearly identical to the previous version of Ad-aware. Mr Stark indicated that he is considering taking legal action against these companies.

In addition, Spycleaner is sold from the web site http://www.adaware.info/, which appears to be a play on the name recognition of Lavasoft's Ad-aware. At one point, this web site included user testimonials praising Ad-aware. Stark believes that this web site and the testimonials were created to mislead users into thinking that they were buying the real Ad-aware.

Topdownloads and BulletProofSoft appear to be associated somehow considering that their spyware removal programs are so similar. However, I have found no real evidence of a formal relationship beyond that similarity. Of course, it's always possible that one company stole their design from the other, in which case we have the most beautiful case of poetic justice in history.

I have tested all of these products and I have to say that the resemblances between Ad-aware, Spycleaner, and BPS Spyware Remover are striking. The interfaces are the nearly the same. The configuration is virtually identical. The manner in which they scan the system is identical. After scanning, the log files saved by all three programs are in almost exactly the same format.

BPS's log file
Spycleaner's log file
Ad-aware's log file

Perhaps the most obvious similarity is the fact that they all look alike, as shown below.

Do not remotely load any of these images please. I have to pay for all this bandwidth

BPS Spyware Remover
Topdownloads Spycleaner
Lavasoft's Ad-aware
Spycleaner after scanning
Ad-aware after scanning

Spycleaner's options tab is very similar to that of Ad-aware's, which you can see here.

As well as looking virtually identical and scanning with the same options, all three programs also exhibit exactly the same behavior in several ways. For instance, all three have the same pop up message congratulating the user if there is not spyware found. (Click here to read it online if you don't see the images in your email)

BPS's congratulations message
BPS's congratulations message

Spycleaner's congratulations message
Spycleaner's congratulations message

Ad-aware's congratulations message
Ad-aware's congratulations message

All three also produce a similar-looking pop up warning message if you find spyware components, deselect them, and press the continue button.

BPS's warning pop up
BPS's warning pop up

Spycleaner's warning pop up
Spycleaner's warning pop up

Ad-aware's warning pop up
Lavasoft's warning pop up

I have contacted BulletProofSoft, Topdownloads, and TrekBlue for comments. Any replies as well as any new information will be published in next week's issue of this newsletter.


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