Internet Coalition Sets Up Anti-'Badware' Site

By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A group including Google Inc. and institutes at Harvard and Oxford universities plans to unveil a campaign today against spyware and other malicious computer programs that can steal personal information, snoop on your Web surfing and bombard you with pop-up ads.

The coalition, which is receiving unpaid advice from Consumer Reports WebWatch, is launching a Web site -- http://www.stopbadware.org/ -- to catalogue programs that infect unsuspecting users and to let them check whether something is dangerous before downloading it.

The group also will spotlight firms that make the software in an effort to shame them and will gather data that could lay the groundwork for class-action lawsuits against them.

"For too long, unscrupulous companies have made millions of dollars infecting our computers with malicious software," said John Palfrey, co-director of the Stop Badware Coalition and executive director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "This is so dangerous because there are intruders in your house, but you don't know that they are in there or how they got there."

Some such programs can track every keystroke on a computer and steal credit card, bank account and Social Security numbers.

The coalition also aims to crack down on adware -- programs that, among other things, can track Web-surfing habits and launch pop-up or other ads at people who often have no idea how the software got on their computer.

While computer worms and other viruses of the 1990s were usually generated by individuals out to cause mischief, today such problems often are created by cyber-criminals out to steal money or identity.

Definitions of such software vary widely, so the group has lumped them all into the term "badware," which it defines as malicious software that subverts a computer's operations to benefit a third party.

The Berkman Center and the Oxford Internet Institute are the two primary groups involved in the effort, which is receiving funding from Google, the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine; Beijing-based Lenovo Group Ltd., which last year bought International Business Machines Corp.'s personal computer business; and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc., which sells computer hardware, software and services.

Consumer Reports WebWatch, a grant-funded Consumers Union project that conducts research on the online marketplace, said it supports the coalition's aims and will be an unpaid adviser.

Companies such as Google and Lenovo have a clear interest in making sure people can use the Internet with confidence and therefore keep buying their products and services.

"These people out there are very important to Google. They are our customer base," said Vinton G. Cerf, who helped develop the Internet's basic communications protocol and is now a Google vice president. "So our interest is very strong in doing anything we can to help defend against this sort of abusive behavior."

Microsoft Corp. introduced a free test version of anti-spyware software more than a year ago, and it plans to integrate the final product -- called Windows Defender -- in its new Vista operating system and to give it to Windows XP users.

Industry analysts said Microsoft's entry may dent consumer demand for commercial anti-spyware products, but they said there will continue to be a huge corporate market for products from computer security companies such as Symantec Corp. and McAfee Inc., saying consumers and companies need a range of products to combat spyware, viruses and other threats.

Atlanta-based EarthLink Inc. said it began offering anti-spyware programs to its users in October 2003. Time Warner Inc.'s America Online Inc. began making such software available in May 2004 and is now heavily advertising its efforts to stop security threats.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company