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April 24, 2003

Spyware in the Opera web browser?

Update April 26: The Inquirer has now retracted this article. http://www.theinquirer.net/?article=9154

You know, we have enough problems getting people to take privacy and advertising spyware seriously without this sort of nonsense. Recently the Inquirer tabloid published an article from someone strongly suggesting that the Opera browser was behaving like advertising spyware.

The author, suspicious of advertisements for businesses located nearby that appeared in Opera's banner window, installs a process viewer and a firewall to keep an eye on what Opera is doing. Then follows a long ramble in which the author makes it perfectly clear that he has no idea what he's talking about.

The author notes that Opera is using larger and larger amounts of memory as he surfs, that it seems to be accessing several DLL files, and that some of the memory threads are running at "time-critical" priority. Apparently he is unaware that nearly every application on a modern computer does exactly what he witnessed Opera doing. His conclusion is that Opera is spying on his computer in order to serve him advertisements for companies that are close by.

The author takes a perfectly innocent program that happens to have an embedded ad banner, studies it, takes note of perfectly ordinary behavior, and then claims that it is spyware because the ads are *gasp* relevant. His "personalized" ads are probably the result of having third party cookies turned on. I left that enabled once and ended up getting ads for spyware and keyloggers. I own an anti-spyware site and visit other such sites every day, so go figure.

The ads for businesses close to him are explained by the fact that the servers that store the ad banners determine which ads to show partly based on the user's IP address. It is a very simple matter to look up where in the world an IP address originates, no spying needed.

He uses a process viewer without understanding what he's looking at and claims that high memory use means it's doing something nefarious in the background. His high memory usage is probably caused by ram caching being enabled in Opera's settings dialog.

I have given Opera a hard time in the past about having banners served from Cydoor servers, but even then they were just using Cydoor's servers, not their software. I notice that even that is no longer done now.

That Inquirer article is dead wrong. There is no spyware. And you can quote me on that.

It is glaringly obvious that his analysis is completely wrong and he ends up sounding like a lunatic. By extension, articles like this make people like me look like kooks and paranoid hermits when we discuss something that really is spyware. This sort of idiotic reporting is exactly why people don't take the problem of advertising spyware seriously, and the Inquirer should print a full, clear retraction of the author's ridiculous statements.

Featured Software

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Title: Invisible Secrets 4
Author: NeoByte Solutions
License: $39.95 $29.95

Keep those prying eyes out of your communications and prevent unwanted people from reading your private files!

Invisible Secrets 4 not only encrypts your data and files for safe keeping or for secure transfer across the net, it also hides them in places that on the surface appear totally innocent, such as picture or sound files, or web pages. These types of files are a perfect disguise for sensitive information. Nobody, not even your wife, boss, or a hacker would realize that your important papers or letters are stored in your last holiday pictures, or that you use your personal web page to exchange messages or secret documents. With Invisible Secrets 4 you may encrypt and hide files directly from Windows Explorer, and then automatically transfer them by e-mail or via the Internet.

Invisible Secrets 4 features strong encryption algorithms (including AES - Rijndael), a password management solution that stores all your passwords securely and helps you create secure passwords, a shredder that helps you destroy beyond recovery files, folders and internet traces, a locker that allows you to password protect certain applications, the ability to create self-decrypting packages and mail them to your friends or business partners, a tool that allows you to transfer a password securly over the internet, and a cryptboard to help you use the program from Windows Explorer. Invisible Secrets 4 is shell integrated and offers a wizard that guides you through all the necessary steps needed to protect your data.

If you have let your friends, family, or guests use your computer, they can poke around in any document on your hard drive. If your computer or laptop is stolen or broken into by a hacker, they can cause you severe personal and financial harm. Using Invisible Secrets, you can very easily hide those files that contain personal and financial information in an anonymous looking picture and encrypt it.

If you are on a business trip and need to email an important document to your boss, you would attach that document to the email and click "send". You may think of an email as an electronic letter that stays sealed until it reaches its recipient, but in reality it is more like an electronic post card. Anyone between you and the recipient can read every word in it and access any attachments.

Encryption helps, but even the strongest encryption on the planet fails when people use a predictable password (an all too common problem). Invisible Secrets makes it very easy to hide that sensitive document inside of a picture and encrypt it. Even if the wrong person intercepts your email, they probably won't realize that there is anything worth trying to break into.

I asked some people what they thought of Invisible Secrets. They liked it very much and found it very easy to use.

I think it is a worthwhile program after reviewing it and it can also help in learning these securing technologies and password keeping. Valuable to a newbie or an advanced user.

-- Tom Wilson TomCoyote.org

Every week, SpywareInfo bring you a discount on expensive software that lets you keep your private business private and your computer running smoothly. The commissions keep the bills paid at SpywareInfo without having to bring in 3rd party advertisers (and their tracking cookies). If there is a program you'd love to have, but the price tag is too much, let us know and we might feature it here.

Invisible Secrets is available to SpywareInfo readers for $29.95, $10.00 off the normal price. This special price ends on April 30, 2003.

Click here for more detailed information

Privacy International's Big Brother and Stupid Security Awards held

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A few weeks ago, Privacy International held the 2003 US Big Brother awards to celebrate the invaders and champions of privacy. The ceremony was held at the 2003 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference.

Prizes for government agencies, companies and initiatives which have done most to invade personal privacy in the United States were statues of a boot stepping on the head of George Orwell. Those who have worked for privacy were presented with Brandeis Awards, named after US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who described privacy as "the right to be let alone."

The Defense Department's "Total Information Awareness" project was awarded Most Invasive Proposal. Delta Airlines was awarded the Greatest Corporate Invader for its CAPPS II program. Worst Public Official went to Viet Dinh, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy. Dinh is the architect of the infamous Patriot Act.

The Admiral John Poindexter Lifetime Menace Award went to Osama Bin Ladin for giving US Attorney General John Ashcroft the excuse for pushing for such laws as the Patriot Act. Unfortunately, Bin Ladin was unable to attend the awards, as he was otherwise engaged ......

The 2003 Brandeis Award Winners were Edmund Mierzwinski, Jim Kasper, Charlene Nelson, and Joyce Meskis. Edmund Mierzwinski is U.S. PIRG Consumer Program Director. James Kasper serves as a Representative to the North Dakota state legislature. Charlene Nelson is a North Dakota farmer who led a successful referendum in her state to reestablish opt-in privacy rules. Joyce Meskis is the owner of the Denver-based Tattered Cover bookstore.

Privacy International also held the 5th Annual UK Big Brother Awards last month. Winning the Lifetime Menace Award was English Prime Minister Tony Blair. Most Invasive Company went to Capita, the company behind many of The United Kingdom's most controversial surveillance and data management schemes.

More recently, Privacy International held the Stupid Security Awards. The Most Egregiously Stupid Award went to the government of Australia, not surprising for a government which forces its ISPs to use Net Nanny-style software to filter out "undesirable" content for all internet surfers. The Most Inexplicably Stupid Award went to the Philadelphia International Airport for ordering the quarantine of a hospital emergency room, a doughnut shop and a drug store after a Saudi Arabian college student sprayed himself with cologne. The Most Flagrantly Intrusive Award went to a Delta Airlines Terminal at JFK Airport for forcing a woman flying from New York to Florida to drink three bottles of her own breast milk before being allowed to board her flight.

Privacy International (PI) is a human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance by governments and corporations. PI is based in London, England, and has an office in Washington, D.C. PI has conducted campaigns throughout the world on issues ranging from wiretapping and national security, to ID cards, video surveillance, data matching, police information systems, medical privacy, and freedom of information and expression.

The Case of the Confused Popup Blocker

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We received an odd report at the support forums recently. Someone was claiming that there were some popunder windows that were "attacking" AnalogX's POW popup stopper. Supposedly when POW was used to block popunders advertising a particular product, it would cause POW to start closing all Internet Explorer windows.

We were given an address at Geocities (surprise, surprise) for where these popunders were being served up. I loaded up POW, turned off Proxomitron, and went over to see for myself. Sure enough, upon loading this site, a medium-sized popunder loaded behind my browser.

The way POW works is you have to add window titles to POW's blacklist and it will automatically close any windows with those titles. No doubt you've seen these particular popunders before if you are not using a good popup blocker. These ads are built to look just like CMD or DOS windows. In the title bar of these popunder windows you see something similar to *** FREE <PROGRAM NAME HERE> FREE ***. When I added this to POW's blacklist, sure enough it closed every open Internet Explorer window and wouldn't let me reopen any.

The reason for this was pretty obvious after I spent a few minutes looking at the way POW handles its blacklist. An asterisk (*) is used as a wildcard. If you were to add "Free*" to the blacklist, any Internet Explorer window that starts with the word "Free" in its title would be closed automatically because of the asterisk. Because that popunder's title bar starts with multiple asterisks, POW thought it was being told to close Internet Explorer windows with all possible titles.

Probably this was not a deliberate attack on POW. It just happened to expose a flaw in the way POW works. What it means is that anyone who uses POW as their popup blocker will not be able to use it to close any windows that use multiple asterisks. AnalogX's Mark Thompson has some pretty slick software available for free on his site, but I'd have to say that POW is not worth the time spent in downloading it.

When POW first came out and pop ups were a fairly new phenomenon, I'm sure it was a godsend to surfers. Today however, there are far better programs out there for suppressing popups and popunders. There is Adshield if all you want to do is to block popups and other ads in Internet Explorer. If you want a professional, easy-to-use popup blocker that works with all browsers, check out Panicware's Pop-up Stopper Pro.

As a footnote to this, I have requested that the product being advertised in those popunder windows be added as a new target to the databases of the various anti-spyware products. I accidently clicked one of those popunders and, when I did, it opened a window that loaded the advertiser's web site. This window was then resized to full screen using a javascript and it started to load an ActiveX plugin to automatically install the program being advertised. When I canceled the download and closed the window, it opened yet another pop up window which again attempted to install the program. I have also seen reports of these particular popunders loading the ActiveX plugin on Angelfire sites. That means that you don't even have to click the popunder to have this program drive-by install itself.

This is an unethical method of distribution known as "drive-by downloading", and here it was attempted twice. Any software found using this method of distribution deserves to be targeted as the malware that it is, and it will be submitted. Any developers out there who may be thinking of using this method to increase your distribution, understand that you will find yourself losing more users than you gain when and if your product becomes a target of Spybot, Ad-aware and all the rest. If you have any doubt of that, ask Jamie Rosen how Comet Cursor is doing these days.

MyWay? Or TheirWay?

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This really kills me. Several times in the past I have strongly recommended myway.com to my readers. I even used to recommend the MyWay email service to people who couldn't receive my newsletter at their usual email service for whatever reason (26 of you are reading this at myway.com right now). It is honestly a very good site. If you've never been there, think Yahoo without all the ads. When it started out, its ad-free pages and simple privacy policy bought it some solid support among the pro-privacy crowd. Unfortunately, they have now blown off that support.

There is a toolbar associated with the site, the "MyWay Speedbar". It's very similar to the Google Toolbar. I installed it here and used it and it was pretty cool, although I don't use Internet Explorer enough to really need it. Unlike the parasitic toolbars usually targeted as spyware, the MyWay Speedbar doesn't hijack search and home page settings and doesn't dig itself so deeply into the system that you need a blow torch to be rid of it.

Unfortunately, MyWay has started distributing this toolbar using some very disreputable methods. A recent update to the peer-to-peer program Grokster introduced new "sponsor" software bundled into the installer. Altogether, there is now an unbelievable twenty "sponsored" programs bundled into the installer. Unfortunately, one of those sponsored programs is the MyWay Speedbar, and there is no opt-out for it. Anyone installing Grokster has this toolbar foisted on them whether they want it or not. Thanks to FreeAtLast for installing the latest Grokster to discover all this.

I have no problem with programs bundling with other programs. I don't even mind adware as long as it's not tracking computer usage to determine which ads to show (spyware in other words). The Opera browser is a good example of how a program can help pay for itself with built-in ad space. What I have a problem with are programs which do not let you opt-out of its install.

The MyWay Speedbar is now lumped into the same basket with the other undesirable software that Grokster doesn't let you decline to install. Specifically, that is Gator, Cydoor, eBates/Moe Money Maker thiefware, and SideStep. Also like these programs, the MyWay Speedbar has found itself onto the target list of Ad-aware, something I tried to warn them would happen when I found out about this. Too bad for them they didn't heed my warning.

I am not going to recommend that everyone cancel their MyWay accounts. However, I have abandoned my own account and mailbox and removed the toolbar. Consider the company that MyWay is keeping these days, and then consider whether you trust them enough to use their services or toolbar.

Editor's Choice

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These programs, regardless of whether they are freeware or shareware, are the finest programs in their categories. They are programs that I use. Programs will be only presented to you if they meet the criterion of excellence AND they agree to give the Spywareinfo readers a discounted price. These programmers / companies do good work. I am hoping that you support them, as they are recognizing Spywareinfo readers with a special, time limited discount.

Check out the Editor's Choice page for full reviews and links

Dimension 4

Keep your PC's clock running accurately with Dimension 4

NoteTab Pro

NoteTab Pro is a leading-edge text editor and HTML coding tool, and an ideal Notepad replacement.

Belarc Advisor

The Belarc Advisor is a wonderful tool to tell you what software and what hardware are installed on your computer.

Recommend SpywareInfo to a friend

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We are trying to come up with ways to increase the number of visitors to the web site. Recently I signed up for RecommendIt's service, also used by Scot Finnie and Fred Langa. By using RecommendIt's service to send a link to a friend or family member, you can choose to enter a contest with an grand prize of $10,000.

The privacy policy of the site looks solid and I did ask around if anyone had heard anything bad about it before I signed up for it. You can use their service to recommend SpywareInfo to someone you know at http://www.recommend-it.com/l.z.e?s=881459

Of course, you don't *have* to use RecommendIt's site to send a friend a link to the site. Just sending an email will also do the trick.

New Server

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Of course, SpywareInfo is already so busy that it has helped to bring the former server to its knees. There are hundreds of people surfing through the site at any given moment and it has just gotten to be too much. For this reason, I have finally had the site moved to a new server. For the moment, I have shut down the message board. When the site is on the new server and the database is functional again, I will start it back up.

I asked a few months ago for Paypal donations from everyone to help me with the move, and immediately the account filled up. Anyone who has ever sent a donation, thank you very much. Hosting this site is now much more expensive because I've had to abandon the older, cheaper plan that I managed to lock in during a sale several months ago. I have the money, but it sure hurts to see the amount increase so much.

SpywareInfo should be far faster and far more responsive for people surfing it. For several days afterward, there will no doubt be some error messages as I have php scripts all over the site that reference other php scripts, and all of my file paths will now be different. I imagine that I'll be a week or more tracking down all pages that I need to edit. I also have to manually fix the configuration for TonyK's BHO list, the support forums, the software that sends out this newsletter, the mailing list that I host for anti-spyware developers and so forth.

This move is going to be a pain in the butt for the next several days, but the newer, faster server should be worth it. Please bear with me while I get everything back to normal.


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