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January 9, 2003

New Window Washer 4.8

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A Great Loss

I have some sad news to announce. Becky's users bulletin board has gone off the air, permanently from the looks of it. Becky's was a well-known and well-respected privacy and security message board with just under 4,000 registered members, myself included. The two main administrators of the site, Jimmy Moore and Brian Davis, have both been ill in recent months. The site finally closed down Sunday or Monday. My thoughts are with you, guys, and I wish both of you luck for the future.

Becky's was the official support forums for such products as Becky's email program, RegRun Security Suite, and Adshield. It was also the unofficial support forum for Sygate, Look 'n Stop, and Outpost firewalls, Spyblocker, and Ad-aware (at one time). It was also a pretty good forum for general privacy issues and especially for firewall and encryption issues. All in all, this site being closed is a great loss to the internet privacy and security community and it will be sorely missed.

Spybot S&D 1.1 rel 4

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As I mentioned last week, a new version of Spybot came out last week. For now you have to download 1.1 rel 3, then use the internal updater to download the rel 4 version and all updates.

This new release has some pretty cool tools in the tools menu. Included is a process viewer/killer, a startup programs manager, BHO Detector, and a file shredder that not only deletes a file, but also overwrites that file's former location on the hard drive so that it cannot be recovered.

As cool as the new release is, there does seem to be a glitch. By now everyone knows that Internet Explorer installs Alexa spyware right? Well, actually it doesn't. Lavasoft's Ad-aware targets a registry key which it erroneously labels as an Alexa component. That key is what lets Internet Explorer have a related sites sidebar. This sidebar opens a file installed on your machine at c:\windows\web\related.htm.

Spybot's latest update includes a customized version of this file, which uses google instead of alexa.com. The glitch shows up when someone lets Spybot replace this file, then decides they want it back to it's original form. Spybot's restore function doesn't restore this file for some crazy reason. If you've replaced your related.htm with Spybot's and want it back, I've zipped my own and put it on the site. It's the XP Pro version, which I assume is the same as in other versions.

Download Spybot

SpywareInfo Weekly Feature

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As a service to our readers, SpywareInfo is offering a weekly special on software that we believe will benefit any computer user. It is our intent to obtain the very best possible price for our readers. As such, you will find that software will be offered at a reduced price, for a one week period. Our marketing division strives to negotiate and to obtain this discount for a week. Our large readership support enables us to approach program developers for such a reduction in price. Not only will you be receiving the finest software at a discounted price, your purchase through this site will be financial support for our editor and staff. SpyWareInfo will only offer the finest products, products that we would not hesitate to use on our own computers.

SpywareInfo is actively searching out companies interested in working with us to present quality software to our readers at a significant discount for this one week period. If your company is interested in participating in this feature, or if you are one of our readers and would like to see a particular product highlighted here, then please contact our Director of Marketing, Ms Catherine Forsythe. We will review the product and approach the developer if the program meets our stringent standards. We thank you for your support. If a software program interests you, please tell your friends and send them here. You will be doing a multiple good deed.

X-Cleaner spyware remover removes traces of documents opened, pictures viewed. Detect and remove "spy" software that logs your activity. Permanently erase files using the industrial shredder. Know if users are snooping your keystrokes! Portable! So small you can take it with you to public machines. No installation required - simply download and use.

X-Cleaner, which normally retails for $39.95, is once again available to SpywareInfo visitors for 10% off the regular price! Get it before the discount is over!

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TurboTax Followup

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Weeks ago I warned about a copy protection program known as C Dilla (also known as Safecast) being installed by Quicken's TurboTax 2002 (among other software titles). At the time I wasn't able to find anything on Quicken's web site in regards to this software. It turns out that there is a page with an official statement about Safecast/CDilla, but I was unaware of it until recently.

Quicken claims that this software does not gather information on their users and thus is not spyware. However, the maker of the software in question has something different to say about this.

http://www.macrovision.com/solutions/software/drm/

Using SafeCast, you can:

  • Securely deliver software by electronic download, on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, or as value-added content on a Video DVD.
  • Accept payments and unlock products via the web and/or by phone, fax or e-mail.
  • Offer products as time-limited trials (with or without "click here to buy"), or on a subscription or rental basis.
  • Require users to activate or register their software, and gather valuable data on your customer base.

So whom do we believe? Quicken, who secretly bundles this software and says that it doesn't gather data on the user? Or Macrovision, who actually makes the software and says that it does?

The information describing SafeCast at privacyandspying.com is what originally led to SafeCast's label as spyware. This description reportedly came from Macrovision's web site where there were several documents pitching SafeCast to potential clients. In an interesting development, those documents which have been online for years have all suddenly disappeared from Macrovision's web site. They were there just a few weeks ago.

  • SafeCast FAQ - The SafeCast FAQ is being updated. Please check back soon to view the latest version.
  • Articles & White Papers - The SafeCast Technical Overview is being updated. Please check back soon to view the latest version.
  • Demos - There are no demos available at this time.

Using the web archive's wayback machine, I was able to find most of the missing documents. Unfortunately they merely pointed to a PDF file which neither the archive nor google.com cached, and which is no longer on the Macrovision web site.

The reason Quicken installs Safecast is to prevent the pirating of TurboTax. Considering how outraged people are at Quicken right now, I don't think a software pirate could give it away if they paid someone to take it. Take a look at these reviews at Amazon.com to see what I mean. One reviewer makes a very good point when he asks ".... if they don't trust us with their software, why should we trust them with our taxes?"

We've been trying to come up with acceptable alternatives to TurboTax at the forums. We briefly considered something called Taxcut Deluxe, until I went to the site to look at the privacy policy. Taxcut sells your personal information to all manner of unrelated companies, such as advertisers and insurance companies. I don't recommend Taxcut at all as an alternative to TurboTax.

This week, instead of a poll, we're looking for alternatives to TurboTax that

  1. Works as well or better
  2. Does not bundle with spyware
  3. Does not bundle with anything which damages the computer the way SafeCast does (eg. disabling the CD burner)
  4. Does not sell your personal and/or financial information to marketers, spammers, telemarketers, and direct mail marketers the way Taxcut Deluxe and others may do.

If you have a suggestion, please join the discussion. (No registration required)

Last week's poll results:

Would you buy a CD for its extra features?

Yes, spyware or no spyware                (2%)
Yes, but not if it came with spyware   (47%)
No                                                       (46%)
I'm not sure                                         (3%)

Lies, damned lies, and computer documentation

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It seems there are some rumors going around that Lavasoft is planning to charge for upgrades from 5.83 plus to 6 plus. This is not true. Owners of Ad-aware Plus 5.x will still be provided with a free upgrade to the 6.x version when/if it is released.

Lavasoft Announcement:

Apparently rumours are making its way through the internet, that Lavasoft is planning to charge existing customers for the upgrade to Ad-aware Plus 6.

This is however only a rumour and not true.

All existing Ad-aware Plus customers will be provided with an FREE upgrade to Ad-aware Plus 6.

This long-rumored version 6 has still not been released. That's fine, as it is better to release a thoroughly tested product late than a buggy product on time. Too bad the current version is now approaching its fourth month with no update. The Plus version of Ad-aware 6 ($15 license) is scheduled for release "sometime in January". I'm not gambling any money on it however.

A Victory For Privacy

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Judge Rules Against Homeland Security Office in Privacy Suit

By Leslie Miller
Associated Press
Published: Jan 2, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Office of Homeland Security lost the first round in a legal fight to keep its activities secret as a federal judge ruled it will have to answer questions about its power over other federal agencies. U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered the office to prove it has no authority other than helping and advising President Bush if it wants to dismiss a lawsuit seeking access to its records.

The ruling last week favored the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is trying to get Homeland Security records on proposals for a national driver's license and for a "trusted flyer" program that relies on biometric information to identify airline passengers.

Kollar-Kotelly said the center "may inquire into the nature of the authority delegated to (the Office of Homeland Security) to determine whether or not it possesses independent authority."

David Sobel, attorney for the privacy group, called the ruling an intermediate victory over Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

"This is about opening a window into the activities of what has been, until now, a very secretive entity," Sobel said.

Homeland Security tried to get the lawsuit dismissed, claiming it doesn't have to release records because it's not an agency. The privacy group said it didn't have enough information to prove otherwise and asked for permission to find out how the office exercises its authority.

The privacy group has until Feb. 24 to find out whether other agencies receive instructions or directions from Homeland Security or if they have to get the office's approval for policies or activities.

Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the office is reviewing the opinion and working with the Justice Department to figure out what to do next.

The office, created by President Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has consistently denied that it's an agency. Earlier this year, Ridge refused to testify before Congress about the office's budget on the grounds that he merely advises President Bush.

Homeland Security will no longer be able to make that argument when it becomes a new federal department on Jan. 24.

Sobel said Homeland Security's increased power and reach will warrant even closer public oversight.

The new department, for example, will receive information from the FBI, which has expanded powers under the USA Patriot Act, passed in response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Sobel said.

"We're already seeing an effort on the part of all the separate entities to really close the door on any scrutiny," he said.

SpywareInfo in the news

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The site has gotten quite a bit of publicity lately. SWI has been discussed in Lockergnome no less than four times in the last week or two, and I'm heavily quoted in a new Newsfactor article by Lisa Gill, PC Spies At The Gate. Unlike the hatchet job done by The Wall Street Journal a couple of months ago, this is a very good article and I recommend everyone go read it.

All the publicity brought several tens of thousands of new visitors to the site. While I love having all the visitors, it also caused me to use up roughly twice my allotted bandwidth limit. Since I was a few days away from upgrading the hosting package (again) to that very level anyway, this didn't hurt anything, although it was quite an eye opener to see the stats.

Upgrading the hosting cost me $200. Upgrading my internet connection a few weeks ago so that I could spend more time working on the web site cost me $600. Needless to say, my wallet has lost quite a bit of weight recently. If you'd like to make a contribution to keep the bills paid, I have a PayPal account set up for just that purpose. All peanuts tossed my way are very much appreciated. Cashews on the other hand...... ~shudder~ 

http://www.spywareinfoforum.info/support.php

After this last upgrade, I had thought that I would have enough bandwidth available that I wouldn't need to worry about my usage. However, it seems that I'm doing roughly one gig of transfer per day, which is just not good at all. My limit is 30 gigs, beyond which I have to shell out even more money for. For that reason I am going to be doing some creative "load balancing". I own spywareinfo.org as well as .com. That domain is hosted on another server which I partially control. I'm going to start redirecting some of the files on spywareinfoforum.info that are real heavy hitters in terms of bandwidth use to spywareinfo.org. There is no need to worry about links or bookmarks breaking since the server will redirect every file moved without a problem.

Ramble

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You will notice some changes to the site in the coming months. SpywareInfo has always been my personal site from which I shout my paranoid ramblings at the world. However, due to the unbelievable popularity of the site, I can no longer treat it as a personal soapbox. More than once I've forgotten that when I say something on this site, several tens of thousands of people read it. That's caused me some grief a few times.

It has also nearly gotten me sued on three occasions. The scumbags at lop.com threatened to sue me just for linking to a web site which was publishing information about the company. It was one link, which was at the bottom of the lop.com article, but in retaliation for threatening me I linked to nastylop.com on just about every page of the site. I'm still waiting on that subpoena. :)

Eventually, the person running nastylop.com was extorted into taking down most of the content, so that ended that. Remarkably, they also threatened to sue PCWorld for an article by Tom Spring which discusses lop.com. C2Media might write some clever code, but they sure have a lot to learn about some things.

Anyway, SWI has also become a very well-known, very well-regarded source of information on spyware and internet privacy. Tech support people are pointing their customers at the scanner page by the thousands. Sites such as Broadband Reports quote my site in their spyware FAQ. There is even a site translating some of my articles into Spanish (which I'll discuss next week).

If someone has had their computer hijacked by a brand new scumbag hijackware program, by now everyone knows to send them to my site and we usually get it fixed fairly quickly. If not, we beat it to death trying to figure it and usually we do find a way to fix it. All modesty aside, if someone is having problems with spyware or browser hijackers, there is no better place on the net to find help than at the SWI forums. There are so many true computer experts that post there regularly that I find myself constantly outclassed by them. Usually I don't even bother to answer some of the more difficult posts because the real experts will be there minutes later and usually do a better job of answering it than I could have.

SWI also runs a private mailing list for the developers of several spyware cleaning programs. When we find a new one, I send out a notice and the new crapware finds itself targeted by several different programs. If you make spyware removal or other privacy software and aren't on this list, drop me a line. Software developers or privacy web site owners only please.

Some examples of scumware and scummy web sites that became Ad-aware/Spybot/Aluria/Pest Patrol/etc targets due to our efforts at SWI include Xupiter, Search-Explorer, Prolivation, innumerable porn dialers, a seemingly infinite number of variations of lop.com, and lord knows how many script kiddie registry hacks which sent victims off to hijacker web sites.

So, in the coming months I am going to be redoing the site to make it more professional looking. Let's face it, it's not a personal project anymore. So pretty soon it won't look like a personal site, it'll look like a professional source of information for people interested in protecting their privacy. This includes updating the long neglected resources page. The informal style of writing in most of the existing articles will be rewritten into a more formal style. This newsletter will remain my personal soapbox, but the rest of the site will be "just the facts ma'am".

Since this issue is late (for reasons I'll reveal next week), I am changing the schedule for next week. Next week's issue will be out Wednesday instead of Tuesday. For the 1,500 or so people who signed up since the last issue went out, this newsletter is supposed to go out every Tuesday. Unfortunately I wasn't able to do it this week. Again, the reason for that will be revealed next week.

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