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"Spyware": Research, Testing, Legislation, and Suits

ComScore Doesn't Always Get Consent

June 29, 2007 - Updated, July 26, 2007


This past Wednesday, ComScore raised $82 million in an IPO that jumped 42% in its first day of trading. Some investors clearly like ComScore's business, but I wonder whether they fully understand ComScore's business model, privacy implications, and poor track record of nonconsensual installations.

ComScore's tracking software is remarkably invasive. The privacy policy for ComScore's RelevantKnowledge tracking program purports to grant ComScore the right to track users' name and address, browsing, shopping, and even "online accounts ... includ[ing] personal financial [and] health information." Based on these privacy concerns, well-respected security researchers have long warned about ComScore's software. For example, in 2004 Cornell University began blocking all communications with ComScore's MarketScore tracking servers. Multiple other universities (including Columbia University and Indiana University) followed up with special warnings to their users.

At least as serious are ComScore's installation practices. ComScore pays independent distributors to install ComScore software onto users' computers. Predictably, some of these distributors install ComScore software without getting user consent. Some specific examples:

ComScore's nonconsensual installations are particularly notable because TRUSTe's Trusted Download program recently granted a certification (albeit "provisional") to ComScore's RelevantKnowledge software. I've previously criticized other TRUSTe certifications -- concerned that TRUSTe-certified sites may be no safer than other sites, and arguably less safe. That said, to TRUSTe's credit, Integrated Search Technologies' Vomba is no longer on TRUSTe's Trusted Download list -- albeit a result that TRUSTe attributes to Vomba's financial concerns rather than to security researchers' critique of Vomba's practices and lineage. Whatever the reasons for IST's removal, perhaps ComScore's MarketScore could stand for an equally thorough review.

ComScore also boasts a "WebTrust" seal from Ernst & Young. See the associated Audit Report. Ernst & Young indicates that it "test[ed] and evaluat[ed] the operating effectiveness" of ComSCore's internal controls but concedes that "error or fraud may occur and not be detected."

 

Update - TRUSTe's Response (July 26, 2007)

On Friday July 20 -- well after the close of the East Coast business day, and fully three weeks after I first reported the nonconsensual installs described above -- TRUSTe announced that ComScore's RelevantKnowledge has been removed from the Trusted Download whitelist for three months.

I have mixed views about this outcome. On one hand, it's certainly an improvement from prior TRUSTe practice, during which companies as notorious as Direct Revenue were allowed to continue to hold TRUSTe privacy seals despite widespread nonconsensual installations. But a comment from Sunbelt Software's Eric Howes offers compelling concerns. Eric explains:

[TRUSTe has] essentially decided to continue working with ComScore, provided ComScore spends a token amount of time in the "naughty corner." ... Who loses as a result? Consumers and web surfers ultimately, as ComScore will be allowed to continue plying its trade of surreptitious, underhanded installs of its RelevantKnowledge software to support some very aggressive and intrusive data collection on unsuspecting users' machines, all with PR cover from TRUSTe.

Eric also cites a June 27 exchange between Sunbelt CEO Alex Eckleberry and TRUSTe's Colin O'Malley. Transcribing from the audio recording of the Anti-Spyware Coalition's public workshop :

Alex Eckelberry: "So what if you have an application that is installing through an exploit? Do those guys go through a probationary process, or do they just get cut off? Are they just gone?"

Colin O'Malley: "If they're installing through an exploit, that's covered in what's described in what we describe as our prohibited activities. That's not an activity that is acceptable by any level of notice, and so they're terminated immediately."

Alex Eckelberry: "Good. OK."

Remarkably, TRUSTe's spokesperson now claims Colin promised termination only when a vendor itself uses exploits, but not when its distributors do so. Reports Vnunet: "'Colin [O'Malley]'s remarks were specifically about a company that is directly responsible,' the spokesperson explained. 'In this case, it was the affiliate that was exploiting the flaw.'"

I've read and reread the exchange, and listened repeatedly for good measure. On my interpretation, Colin plainly promised to terminate any vendor whose software is becoming installed through exploits -- no matter whether the vendor itself performs the exploit, or whether the exploit is performed by one of the vendor's distributors. I reach this conclusion for two separate reasons:

1) The plain language of Alex's question is intentionally inclusive as to who is doing the installation. Notice the broad "that is installing" -- vague as to how exactly the installation is occurring.

2) Distributor-perpetrated exploit installs have been standard practice in the "adware" industrry. That's what I widely observed as to 180solutions, Direct Revenue, eXact Advertising, and so many others. Meanwhile, vendor-perpetrated exploit installs are few and far between -- common only among little-known companies, and even then usually comingled with installing third parties' software. So if Colin had wanted to remark only on the (unusual or unprecedented) vendor-perpetrated exploits, he would have needed to say that specifically.

Perhaps TRUSTe regrets the breadth of Colin's promise. But Colin made a tough commitment for good reason: As Colin spoke to dozens of anti-spyware researchers already suspicious of Trusted Download, his big promises helped bolster TRUSTe's credibility. Had Colin told the ASC what now seems to be TRUSTe's policy -- that some exploit-based installs yield only a temporary suspension -- I gather Alex would have questioned Colin further to emphasize the need for a tougher response. Other meeting attendees would probably have done the same.

In any event, if Colin's goal was to build support among anti-spyware researchers, his efforts don't seem to be succeeding. Eric continues:

Th[is] case was significant in that it was the first big public test of how well TRUSTe would perform when called to defend the standards that allegedly undergird the Trusted Download program. When push came to shove, though, TRUSTe demonstrated itself to be lacking the backbone to deliver on its word. [This is] another illustration of why we at Sunbelt place no value whatsoever in TRUSTe's whitelisting and certifications.

Added FaceTime's Chris Boyd:

For Gods sake, when are we going to stop gimping around and actually break out some actual punishments for people? Either kick someone from your program and be done with it, or ... just give up already.

TRUSTe's extreme delay further compromises the standing of Trusted Download: Three weeks elapsed before TRUSTe responded to my documentation and proof of nonconsensual ComScore RelevantKnowledge installations. Throughout that period, the Trusted Download whitelist continued to list RelevantKnowledge -- falsely suggesting that RelevantKnowledge was in good standing. Internet users deserve better: When TRUSTe learns of an infraction of such seriousness, all applicable web pages ought to be updated promptly, lest the Internet community mistakenly proceed in reliance on TRUSTe's supposed diligence.