Upromise Savings — At What Cost? updated January 25, 2010

Upromise touts opportunities for college savings. When members shop at participating online merchants, dine at participating restaurants, or purchase selected products at retail stores, Upromise collects commissions which fund college savings accounts.

Unfortunately, the Upromise Toolbar also tracks users’ behavior in excruciating detail. In my testing, when a user checked an innocuously-labeled box promising "Personalized Offers," the Upromise Toolbar tracked and transmitted my every page-view, every search, and every click, along with many entries into web forms. Remarkably, these transmissions included full credit card numbers — grabbed out of merchants’ HTTPS (SSL) secure communications, yet transmitted by Upromise in plain text, readable by anyone using a network monitor or other recording system.

Proof of the Specific Transmissions

I began by running a search at Google. The Upromise toolbar transmissions reported the full URL I requested, including my search provider (yellow) and my full search keywords (green).

POST /fast-cgi/ClickServer HTTP/1.0
User-Agent: upromise/3195/3195/UP23806818/0012
Host: dcs.consumerinput.com
Content-Length: 274
Connection: Keep-Alive


HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Thu, 21 Jan 2010 03:49:51 GMT
Server: Apache/2.2.3 (Debian) mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.5.1 mod_ssl/2.2.3 OpenSSL/0.9.8c
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8


I clicked a result — a page on Wikipedia. Transmissions included the full URL of my request (blue) as well as the web search provider (yellow) and keywords (green) that had referred me (red) to this site.

POST /fast-cgi/ClickServer HTTP/1.0
User-Agent: upromise/3195/3195/UP23806818/0012
Host: dcs.consumerinput.com
Content-Length: 304
Connection: Keep-Alive


HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Thu, 21 Jan 2010 03:52:11 GMT
Server: Apache/2.2.3 (Debian) mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.5.1 mod_ssl/2.2.3 OpenSSL/0.9.8c
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8


I browsed onwards to Buy.com (grey), where I added an item to my shopping cart and proceeded to checkout. When prompted, I entered a (made-up) credit card number. Buy.com appropriately secured the card number with HTTPS encryption. But, remarkably, Upromise extracted and transmitted the full sixteen-digit card number (yellow) — as well as my (also fictitious) CVV code (green), and expiration date (blue).

POST /fast-cgi/ClickServer HTTP/1.0
User-Agent: upromise/3195/3195/UP23806818/0012
Host: dcs.consumerinput.com
Content-Length: 1936
Connection: Keep-Alive


HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Thu, 21 Jan 2010 03:55:15 GMT
Server: Apache/2.2.3 (Debian) mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.5.1 mod_ssl/2.2.3 OpenSSL/0.9.8c
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8


Upromise also transmitted my email address. For example, when I logged into Restaurant.com, Upromise’s transmission included my email (yellow):

POST /fast-cgi/ClickServer HTTP/1.0
User-Agent: upromise/3195/3195/UP23806818/0012
Host: dcs.consumerinput.com
Content-Length: 378
Connection: Keep-Alive


HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Thu, 21 Jan 2010 04:58:56 GMT
Server: Apache/2.2.3 (Debian) mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.5.1 mod_ssl/2.2.3 OpenSSL/0.9.8c
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8


All the preceding transmission were made over my ordinary Internet connection just as shown above. In particular, these transmissions were sent in plain text — without encryption or encoding of any kind. Any computer with a network monitor (including, for users connected by Wi-Fi, any nearby wireless user) could easily read these communications. With no additional hardware or software, a nearby listener could thereby obtain, e.g., users’ full credit card numbers — even though merchants used HTTPS security to attempt to keep those numbers confidential.

The Destination of Upromise’s Transmissions: Compete, Inc.

As shown in the "host:" header of each of the preceding communications, transmissions flow to the consumerinput.com domain. Whois reports that this domain is registered to Boston, MA traffic-monitoring service Compete, Inc. Compete’s site promises clients access to "detailed behavioral data," and Compete says more than 2 million U.S. Internet users "have given [Compete] permission to analyze the web pages they visit."

Upromise’s Disclosures Misrepresent Data Collection and Fail to Obtain Consumer Consent

Upromise’s installation sequence does not obtain users’ permission for this detailed and intrusive tracking. Quite the contrary: Numerous Upromise screens discuss privacy, and they all fail to mention the detailed information Upromise actually transmits.

The Upromise toolbar installation page touts the toolbar’s purported benefits at length, but mentions no privacy implications whatsoever.

If a user clicks the prominent button to begin the toolbar installation, the next screen presents a 1,354-word license agreement that fills 22 on-screen pages and offers no mechanism to enlarge, maximize, print, save, or search the lengthy text. But even if a user did read the license, the user would receive no notice of detailed tracking. Meanwhile, the lower on-screen box describes a "Personalized Offers" feature, which is labeled as causing "information about [a user’s] online activity [to be] collected and used to provide college savings opportunities" But that screen nowhere admits collecting users’ email addresses or credit card numbers. Nor would a user rightly expect that "information about … online activity" means a full log of every search and every page-view across the entire web.

The install sequence does link to Upromise’s privacy policy. But this page also fails to admit the detailed tracking Upromise performs. Indeed, the privacy policy promises that Personalized Offers data collection will be "anonymous" — when in fact the transmissions include email addresses and credit card numbers. The privacy policy then claims that any collection of personal information is "inadvertent" and that such information is collected only "potentially." But I found that the information transmissions described above were standard and ongoing.

The privacy policy also limits Upromise’s sharing of information with third parties, claiming that such sharing will include only "non-personally identifiable data." But I found that Upromise was sharing highly sensitive personal information, including email addresses and credit card numbers.

In addition, Upromise’s data transmissions contradict representation in Upromise’s FAQ. The top entry in the FAQ promises that Upromise "has implemented security systems designed to keep [users’] information safe." But transmitting credit card numbers in cleartext is reckless and ill-advised — specifically contrary to standard Payment Card Industry (PCI) rules, and the opposite of "safe." Indeed, in an ironic twist, Upromise’s FAQ goes on to discuss at great length the benefits of SSL encryption — benefits of course lacking when Upromise transmits users’ credit card numbers without such encryption.

The Upromise toolbar offers an Options screen which again makes no mention of key data transmissions. The screen admits collecting "information about the web sites you visit." But it says nothing of collecting email addresses, credit card numbers, and more.

The Scope and Solution

The transmissions at issue affect only those users who agree to run Upromise’s Personalized Offers system. But until last week, that option was set as the default upon new Upromise toolbar installations — inviting users to initiate these transmissions without a second look.

Even if Upromise ceased the most outrageous transmissions detailed above, Upromise’s installation disclosures would still give ample basis for concern. To describe tracking, transmitting, and analyzing a user’s every page-view and every search, Upromise’s install screen euphemistically mentions that its "service provider may use non-personally identifiable information about your online activity." This admission appears below a lengthy EULA, under a heading irrelevantly labeled "Personalized Offers" — doing little to draw users’ attention to the serious implications of Personalized Offers. I don’t see why Upromise users would ever want to accept this detailed tracking: It’s entirely unrelated to the college savings that draws users to the Upromise site. But if Upromise is to keep this function, users deserve a clear, precise, and well-labeled statement of exactly what they’re getting into.

Upromise’s multi-faceted business raises other concerns that also deserve a critical look. The implications for affiliate merchants are particularly serious — a risk of paying affiliate commission for users already at a merchant’s site. But I’ll save this subject for another day.

Upromise’s Response (posted: January 23, 2010)

Upromise told PC Magazine’s Larry Seltzer that less than 2% of their 12 million members were affected. Though 2% of 12 million is 240,000 — a lot!

Upromise staff also wrote to me. I replied with a few questions:

1) How long was the problem in effect?

2) How many users were affected?

3) What caused the problem?

4) I notice that the Upromise toolbar EULA has numerous firmly-worded defensive provisions. (See the entire sections captioned “Disclaimer of Warranty” and “Limitation of Liability” – purporting to disclaim responsibility for a wide variety of problems. And then see Governing Law and Arbitration for a purported limitation on what law governs and how claims may be brought.) For consumers who believe they suffered losses or harms as a result of this problem, will Upromise invoke the defensive provisions in its EULA to attempt to avoid or limit liability?

I’m particularly interested in the answer to the final question. The EULA is awfully one-sided. I appreciate Upromise confirming the serious failure I uncovered. Upromise should also accept whatever legal liability goes with this breach.

Upromise’s Response to My Questions (posted: January 25, 2010)

Upromise replied to my four questions to indicate that the scope of the problem was "approximately 1% of our 12 million members." Upromise did not answer my questions about the duration of the problem, the cause of the problem, or the effect of Upromise’s EULA defenses.

The Sears "Community" Installation of ComScore

Late last month, Benjamin Googins (a senior researcher in the Anti-Spyware unit at Computer Associates) critiqued a ComScore installation performed by Sears’ "Sears Holdings Community" ("My SHC Community" or "SHC"). After reviewing the installation sequence, Ben concluded that the installation offered "very little mention of software or tracking" and otherwise fell short of CA and industry standards. I agree.

I write today to add my own critique. I begin by presenting the entire installation sequence in screenshots and video. I then explain why the limited notice provided falls far short of the standards the FTC has established. Finally, I show that Sears’ claims of adequate notice are demonstrably false.

The SHC Installation Sequence

The SHC installation proceeds in four steps:

1) An email from Sears after a user provides an address at Sears.com. In seven paragraphs plus a set of bullet points, 582 words in total, the email describes the SHC service in general terms. But the paragraphs’ topic sentences make no mention of any downloadable software, nor do the bullet points offer even a general description of what the software does. The only disclosure of the software’s effects comes midway through the fourth paragraph, where the program is described as "research software [that] will confidentially track your online browsing." Sophisticated users who notice this text will probably abandon installation and proceed no further. But novices may mistakenly think the tracking is specific to Sears sites: SHC is a research program offered by Sears, so it is difficult to understand why tracking would occur elsewhere. Furthermore, the quoted text appears midway through a paragraph — in no way brought to users’ attention via topic sentences, headings, section formatting, or other labels. So it’s strikingly easy to miss.

2) If a user presses the "Join" button in the email, the user is taken to a SHC web-based installation sequence that further details SHC’s offerings. The first page describes some aspects of SHC in reasonable detail — with six prominent and clear bullet points. Yet nowhere does this text make any mention whatsoever of downloadable software, market research, or other tracking.

3) Pressing "Join" in the SHC screen takes a user to a "Welcome to My SHC Community" page which requests the user’s name, address, and household size. The page then presents a document labeled "Privacy Statement and User License Agreement" — 2,971 words of text, shown in a small scroll box with just ten lines visible, requiring fully 54 on-screen pages to view in full. The initial screen of text is consistent with the "privacy statement" heading: The visible text indicates that the document describes "what information [SHC] gather[s and] how [SHC] use[s] it" — typical subjects for a privacy policy. But despite the title and the first screen of text, the document actually proceeds to an entirely different subject, namely downloadable software and its far-reaching effects: The tenth page admits that the application "monitors all of the Internet behavior that occurs on the computer on which you install the application, including … filling a shopping basket, completing an application form, or checking your … personal financial or health information." That’s remarkably comprehensive tracking — but mentioned in a disclosure few users are likely to find, since few users will read through to page 10 of the license.

    Within the Privacy Statement section, a link labeled "Printable version" offers users a full-screen version of the document, requiring "only" ten on-screen pages on my test PC. But nothing in the Privacy Statement caption or visible text suggests that the document merits such thorough review. Due to the labeling and the first screen of text, few users will see any need to click through to the full-screen version.

4) A user next arrives at a screen labeled "You’re almost finished!" Clicking "Next" triggers an ActiveX screen offering an unnamed program, signed by a company called TMRG, Inc. (nowhere previously mentioned in the installation sequence), authenticated by Thawte (part of VeriSign). Pressing Yes in the ActiveX yields an installation program with no further opportunity to cancel installation. Packet sniffer analysis confirms that ComScore software is installed.

See also a video of the installation sequence.

Relevant FTC Rules

The FTC’s recent settlements with Direct Revenue and Zango explain the disclosure and consent required before installing tracking software on users’ computers. To install such software on users’ PCs, vendors must obtain "express consent" — defined to require "clear[] and prominent[] disclos[ure of] the material terms of such software … including the nature and purpose of the program and the effects it will have … prior to the display of, and separate from, any final End User License Agreement." "Clear[] and prominent[]" installations are defined to be those that are "unavoidable", among other requirements.

The Sears SHC installation of ComScore falls far short of these rules. The limited SHC disclosure provided by email lacks the required specificity as to the nature, purpose, and effects of the ComScore software. Nor is that disclosure "unavoidable," in that the key text appears midway through a paragraph, without a heading or even a topic sentence to alert users to the important (albeit vague) information that follows.

The disclosure provided within the Privacy Statement and User License Agreement also cannot satisfy the FTC’s requirements. The FTC demands a disclosure "prior to … and separate from" any license agreement, whereas the only disclosure on this page occurs within the license agreement — exactly contrary to FTC instructions. Furthermore, users can easiliy overlook text on page ten of a lengthy license agreement. Such text is the opposite of "unavoidable."

The SHC/ComScore violation could hardly be simpler. The FTC requires that software makers and distributors provide clear, prominent, unavoidable notice of the key terms. SHC’s installation of ComScore did nothing of the kind.

Other Installation Deficiencies

Beyond the problems set out above, the SHC installation also falls short in other important respects.

Failure to provide the promised additional information. Sears’ initial email promises that "during the registration process, you’ll learn more about this application software." In fact, no such information is provided in the visible, on-screen installation sequence. Based on this false promise and users’ general experience, users may reasonably expect that the download link in step 4 will offer additional information about the software at issue, along with an opportunity to cancel installation if desired. In fact no such information is ever provided, nor do users have any such opportunity to cancel.

Choosing little-known product names that prevent users from learning more. The initial SHC email refers to the ComScore software as "VoiceFive." The license agreement refers to the ComScore software as "our application" and "this application" without ever providing the application’s name. The ActiveX prompt gives no product name, and it reports company name "TMRG, Inc." These conflicting names prevent users from figuring out what software they are asked to accept. Furthermore, none of these names gives users any easy way to determine what the software is or what it does. In contrast, if SHC used the company name "ComScore" or the product name "RelevantKnowledge," users could run a search at any search engine. These confusing name-changes fit the trend among spyware vendors: Consider Direct Revenue’s dozens of names (AmazingMerchants, BestDeals, Coolshopping, IPInsight, Blackone Data, Tps108, VX2, etc.).

Critiquing Sears SHC’s Response

To my surprise, Sears defends the practices described above. In a reply to CA’s Ben Googins, Sears SHC VP Rob Harles claims that SHC "goes to great lengths to describe the tracking aspect." In particular, Harles says "[c]lear notice appears in the invitation", "on the first signup page", and "in the privacy policy and user licensing agreement."

I emphatically disagree. The email invitation provides vague notice midway through a lengthy paragraph that, according to its topic sentence, is otherwise about another topic. The first signup page makes no mention at all of any downloadable software. The privacy policy and license agreement describe the software only in the tenth page of text (where few users are likely to find the disclosures), and even then it fails to reference the program by name.

Harles further claims that the installer provides "a progress bar that they [users] can abort." Again, I disagree. The video and screenshots are unambiguous: The SHC installer shows no progress bar and offers no abort button.

The Installation in Context

In June 2007, I showed other examples of ComScore software installing without consent — including multiple installations through security exploits. TRUSTe responded by removing ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge from TRUSTe’s Trusted Download Program for three months. Now that more than five months have elapsed, I expect that ComScore is seeking readmission. But the installation shown above stands in stark contrast to TRUSTe Trusted Download rules. See especially the requirement that primary notice be "clear, prominent and unavoidable" (Schedule A, sections 3.(a).(iii) and 1.(hh)).

Why so many problems for ComScore? The basic challenge is that users don’t want ComScore software. ComScore offers users nothing sufficiently valuable to compensate them for the serious privacy invasion ComScore’s software entails. There’s no good reason why users should share such detailed information about their browsing, purchasing, and other online activities. So time and time again, ComScore and its partners resort to trickery (or worse) to get their software onto users’ PCs.

ComScore Doesn’t Always Get Consent 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:

  • On Wednesday (June 27, 2007), I browsed ExitExchange, a well-known banner farm widely loaded in popups and popunders by various sites (as well as some spyware programs). ExitExchange showed several ads, one of which performed a security exploit that installed ComScore’s RelevantKnowledge. See video proof. Notice the exploit beginning at 0:12. When I ran a HijackThis scan to check for infections (0:29), I found RelevantKnowledge’s "rk.exe" already running (1:10), even though I had not granted permission for it to install.

    Packet log analysis indicates that the installation was performed by Topinstalls and by Searchclickads. The installation was predicated on two simultaneous attempted exploits — one using a Java vulnerability, another using a Microsoft MSXML vulnerability. Also installed (all without my consent): Deskwizz/Searchingbooth, Look2me, and WebBuying, among others not yet identified.

  • I previously observed and recorded a substantially similar nonconsensual installation of RelevantKnowledge (by these same distributors) on April 26, 2007.
  • Spyware researchers at Sunbelt Software observed a nonconsensual installation of RelevantKnowledge, seemingly by these same distributors, earlier in June 2007. Sunbelt staff browsed FirstStolz and received an exploit that installed TopInstalls and Searchclickads, which in turn installed RelevantKnowledge.
  • In August-September 2006, I repeatedly observed RelevantKnowledge installed by DollarRevenue, a notorious spyware bundler (subsequently shut down by Dutch law enforcement). In my testing, DollarRevenue installed RelevantKnowledge software without users’ consent.

    ComScore staff later admitted they had "engaged in partnership negotiations with DollarRevenue." ComScore claims it never paid DollarRevenue — but I personally observed and recorded DollarRevenue installing ComScore software onto my testing systems.

  • In November 2005, I observed ComScore’s MarketScore software installed by PacerD, a notorious spyware bundler that installed through widespread exploits syndicated through ad networks. PacerD installed RelevantKnowledge without user consent.
  • In April 2007, I observed ComScore’s MarketScore software installed when users request and install a media converter program. The inclusion of MarketScore was disclosed only if users scrolled to page four of a box simply labeled "License Agreement." No on-screen label indicated that multiple documents were concatenated into that single scroll box, nor did any short notice or other prominent text make any mention of RelevantKnowledge’s presence or effects. These omissions stand in stark contrast to recent FTC precedent requiring "clear and prominent disclosure of material terms prior to and separate from any end user license agreement."

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 researcherscritique of Vomba’s practices and lineage. Whatever the reasons for IST’s removal, perhaps ComScore’s MarketScorecould 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.

Debunking ShopAtHomeSelect updated October 14, 2005

Reading ShopAtHomeSelect‘s marketing materials, their advertising software might seem to present compelling benefits. SAHS promises users rebates on products they’re already purchasing. And SAHS even offers reminder software to make sure forgetful users don’t miss out on the savings. What could be better than timely reminders of free money?

But the SAHS site doesn’t tell the whole story. My testing demonstrates that SAHS software is often installed without users wanting it, requesting it, or even accepting it. (Details.) When users receive an unwanted SAHS installation, SAHS still claims commissions on users’ purchases — but typical users will never see a penny of the proceeds. (Details.) Meanwhile, whether requested by users or not, SAHS’s commission-claiming practices seem to violate stated rules of affiliate networks. (Details.)

Despite these serious problems, SAHS boasts a superstar list of clients — the biggest merchants at all the major affiliate networks, including Dell, Buy.com, Expedia, Gap, and Apple. Why? Affiliate networks have little incentive to investigate SAHS’s practices or assure compliance with stated rules. (Details.) SAHS and affiliate networks profit, but users and merchants are left as victims. (Details.)

Update (October 14): Commission Junction has removed SAHS from its network, thereby ending SAHS’s relationships with all CJ merchants. No word on similar actions by LinkShare or Performics.

Wrongful Installations – No Consent, and Tricky So-Called "Consent"

ShopAtHomeSelect is widely known to become installed without meaningful consent — or, in many cases, without any consent at all. Most egregious are installations through security exploits, without any notice or consent. I continually test these installations in my lab, and I have repeatedly observed SAHS appearing unrequested — more than half a dozen such installs, occurring on distinct sites on distinct days. I posted one such video in May, and I retain the others on file.

3D Screensaver installs SAHS, although the SAHS license does not disclose inclusion of SAHSSAHS’s improper installations extend to many of SAHS’s bundling partners. I have repeatedly seen (and often recorded) SAHS disclosed midway through lengthy license agreements; users often have to scroll through dozens of pages to learn of SAHS’s inclusion. Even worse, some programs that bundle SAHS nonetheless fail to mention SAHS’s inclusion. See e.g. 3D Flying Icons, which shows a 12-page 2,286-word license that makes no mention of SAHS, yet 3D installs SAHS anyway. (Screenshot at right.)

PacerD installs SAHS, although the PacerD EULA does not disclose inclusion of SAHS.In other instances, ActiveX popups pressure users to accept multiple advertising programs in the guise of "browser enhancements" (or similar). In February 2005, I observed an ActiveX popup that labeled itself "website access" and "click yes to continue," but immediately installed SAHS if users pressed yes once. More recently, I posted an analysis of the PacerD ActiveX. (Screenshot at left.) PacerD’s ActiveX popup links to a license agreement which discloses installation of eight advertising programs — but doesn’t mention SAHS, though Pacer in fact does install SAHS. So even when careful users take the time to examine Pacer’s 1,951-word license, in hopes of learning what they’re getting, there’s no way to learn that SAHS will be installed, not to mention grant or deny consent.

A porn video distributed by BitTorrent (P2P) installs SAHS. Disclosure occurs only if users scroll down several pages in the video's EULA.  Disclosure consists of only a single sentence, without even a link to more information.I’m not the only observer to notice SAHS installed improperly. Earlier this month, VitalSecurity.org reported SAHS installed via IM spam: Users receive an unsolicited instant message, and clicking the message’s link installs SAHS (among other programs) without any notice or consent. Last month, PC Pitstop (1, 2) and VitalSecurity.org reported SAHS bundled with porn videos distributed by BitTorrent — so a user seeking adult entertainment would unwittingly receive SAHS too. In my testing of these BitTorrent videos, SAHS was listed in a license agreement preceding the videos, but users had to scroll past four pages of other text to learn of SAHS’s inclusion, and even then SAHS’s mention was only a single sentence — without even a link to an external SAHS license agreement, and without any description of the privacy effects of installing SAHS software. (See screenshot at right.) Furthermore, these BitTorrent videos aren’t SAHS’s only tie to porn videos. In January, I analyzed ActiveX popups triggered by porn videos. These popups falsely claimed to be required to view the videos, but in fact they were mere ploys seeking to install SAHS and other advertising software.

In short, a user receiving SAHS cannot reasonably be claimed to have wanted SAHS, nor to have granted informed consent. Perhaps some SAHS users run SAHS willingly and knowingly, but many clearly do not.

In contrast, affiliate networks’ rules set a high burden for installation disclosure and consent. LinkShare’s Shopping Technologies Addendum (PDF) requires that disclosure be "full and prominent," a standard met neither by SAHS’s nonconsensual installations, nor by its installation when bundled with porn videos. Commission Junction’s Publisher Code of Conduct requires that disclosure be "clearly presented to and accepted by" users, and CJ specifically prohibits software that is "installed invisibly" (as in the nonconsensual installations detailed above).

SAHS may claim that these wrongful installations have stopped. But that’s just not credible. I’ve continued to see (and record) these installations as recently as the past few days.

SAHS may say these wrongful installations are the fault of its distributors. (SAHS offered that argument when PC Pitstop inquired as to SAHS bundling with porn videos.) But affiliate networks’ rules do not forgive wrongful installations merely because the installations were performed by others. To the contrary, affiliate networks set out high consent requirements which apply no matter who installs the software. Furthermore, with so many diverse wrongful installations over such an extended period, it’s clear that something is fundamentally wrong with SAHS’s installation methods; SAHS can’t escape responsibility by vague finger-pointing.

Update (September 9): Staff from SAHS have prepared a document (PDF) purporting to rebut my findings of nonconsensual and dubious installations of SAHS. In each instance, SAHS claims they weren’t really installed in the manner I describe, so they say I am "mistaken" as to my allegations. Let’s look at each of the types of installations I described, and review the evidence:

Tricky popups (PacerD specifically): I previously posted an analysis of PacerD’s installation, including a screenshot of new folders created by PacerD. SAHS correctly notes that there’s no new folder containing SAHS files. But the lack of a new Program Files folder doesn’t mean SAHS wasn’t installed; quite the contrary, SAHS was installed by PacerD. Furthermore, SAHS was installed into the c:Windows directory, where inexperienced users are unlikely to look for it, and where its files tend to become jumbled with other files. To document this installation, I have added two new screenshots to my SAHS write-up, showing newly-created SAHS files placed in my c:Windows directory. I also have on file a video, showing the installation of the PacerD ActiveX followed (without interruption in the video) by the creation of these files. I also have on file a packet log indicating the newly-installed copy of SAHS contacting SAHS servers. So my initial write-up was right and SAHS’s response is wrong: PacerD did indeed install SAHS — and it did so without mentioning SAHS in any EULA or other disclosure.

Large bundles with little or no disclosure (3D Flying Icons specifically): Here again, SAHS makes the same analytical error. My write-up reports lots of new folders (within c:Program Files) reflecting other programs becoming installed. SAHS didn’t add a folder to c:Program Files, so it didn’t come up in my Program Files screenshots. But SAHS absolutely was installed by 3D. In a video I made at the time (now also posted to my public site), I observed a SAHS installer created in c:Temp (1:44), and I saw SAHS program files in c:Windows at 2:43, in each instance bearing distinctive SAHS icons as well as typical SAHS filenames. So there can be no disputing that 3D installs SAHS.

Nonconsensual installations through security holes: The section above links to a particular single security exploit video, one of literally scores I have on file. My automated network log analysis, file-change, and registry-change analysis confirm that SAHS was installed in the course of that security exploit, and Ad-Aware logs say the same, but the video does not specifically show the installation. That’s not particularly surprising — SAHS installs can be silent, and I wasn’t specifically seeking to document SAHS installs when I made that video. But rather than worry about this single example from so many months back, let me take this opportunity to post a recent example, showing a nonconsensual SAHS installation I happened to receive just last month (August 2005). In this video, I view a page at highconvert.com (video at 0:05), receive a series of security exploits (0:20-0:30), browse my file system and diagnostic tools, and then get a popup indicating that SAHS has been installed (1:57) (screenshot). My packet log and change-logs also confirm the SAHS installation.

So where does this leave my claims of improper SAHS installations? Notwithstanding SAHS’s promises of legitimacy, there can be no doubt of SAHS becoming installed without consent. SAHS may not like to admit it, and SAHS produces intense rhetoric to deny it, but users with SAHS aren’t all "opt-in." To the contrary, some SAHS users have SAHS just because they’re unlucky enough to get it foisted upon them. And contrary to SAHS’s claim that my findings are "incorrect," I have ample proof of these nonconsensual SAHS installs.


Wrongful Operation – Forced Clicks

In addition to regulating installation methods, affiliate networks’ rules limit the ways in which affiliates may claim affiliate commissions. Commission Junction’s Publisher Code of Conduct prohibits claiming commissions on "non-end-user initiated events" — invoking affiliate links without an "affirmative end-user action." LinkShare’s Shopping Technologies Addendum (PDF) lacks a corresponding prohibition of non-end-user initiated events, but LinkShare’s Affiliate Membership Agreement repeatedly calls for affirmative user actions as a necessary condition to earning commission. For example, LinkShare’s provision 1.1 says commissions are payable only for "users who activate the hyperlink" (emphasis added); the "users … activate" wording specifically contemplates a user taking an affirmative action, not merely a software program automatically opening a link. (Since LinkShare’s special Addendum lacks any provision to the contrary, these Agreement terms still apply.)

There are good reasons for these rules: Affiliate merchants often make substantial payments if an affiliate link is activated and a user makes a purchase. (For example, Dell could easily pay $10+ for a single purchase through a single link.) So software programs aren’t allowed to "click" on affiliate links automatically. Instead, users must actually show some interest in the links — protecting merchants from being asked to pay commissions when an affiliate did nothing to earn a fee.

Although applicable network rules require that clicks on affiliate links be affirmative and that such clicks actually be performed by users (not just by software), SAHS software opens affiliate links and claims commissions without users taking any specific action. See e.g. this SAHS-Dell video, showing a user requesting www.dell.com on a computer with SAHS installed. SAHS immediately redirects the user to its affiliate link to Dell (video at 0:06), and LinkShare affiliate cookies are created (0:08), all without a user affirmatively clicking on any SAHS affiliate link. See also a corresponding SAHS video for Buy.com, showing affiliate link being loaded (0:06) and cookies created (0:10), again without any user interaction.

So SAHS’s operation constitutes an apparent violation of applicable network rules — claiming affiliate commission without the required user click on an affiliate ad, seemingly contrary to network rules.

Affiliate Networks’ Motives

I began this piece with the claim that affiliate networks have allowed SAHS to remain in their networks, notwithstanding the violations set out above. Why?

One possibility is that the affiliate networks simply never noticed the violations. But that’s a suggestion I can’t accept. Consider the many articles above, each reporting wrongful installations. Much of this work received extensive media coverage, including discussions on industry sites of record. Furthermore, most of these findings can be verified easily using any ordinary PC. So affiliate networks can’t credibly claim ignorance of what was occurring.

More persuasive, in my view, is the theory that affiliate networks declined to punish SAHS because SAHS’s actions are profitable for affiliate networks. When an affiliate merchant pays a commission to an affiliate, that merchant must also pay a fee to the intermediary affiliate network. Commission Junction’s public pricing list reports that this fee is 30% — so for every $1 of commission paid to SAHS, CJ earns another $0.30. As a result, affiliate networks have clear financial incentives to retain even rogue affiliates. (Indeed, at the same time that adware has exploded to infect tens of millions of PCs, CJ and LinkShare are reporting unusually strong earnings. [1, 2])

I don’t want to overstate my worry of affiliate networks’ profit motivation. In recent months, affiliate networks have repeatedly kicked out long-time rule-breakers, even where the rule-breakers make money for the networks. (See e.g. LinkShare kicking out 180solutions, and CJ kicking out 180solutions, Direct Revenue and eXact Advertising.) But these actions generally only occur after an extended period of user and analyst outcry. (See e.g. my writing last summer about 180solutions’ effects on affiliate systems.) In contrast, to date, little attention has been focused on SAHS.

Update (October 14): Commission Junction has removed SAHS from its network, thereby ending SAHS’s relationships with all CJ merchants. No word on similar actions by LinkShare or Performics.

Merchants and Users as Victims

As shown in the example video linked above, SAHS claims affiliate commissions even when users specifically request merchants’ sites. Dell and Buy.com get no bona fide benefit from paying 1%-2% to SAHS, as shown in the videos above. SAHS might claim that it pays users rebates as a way to encourage their purchases from participating merchants. But when SAHS arrives on users’ PCs unrequested, and even without users’ acknowledgement or acceptance of its arrival, users are unlikely to be motivated to make purchases from SAHS-participating merchants. So it’s unclear what benefit SAHS can offer merchants under these circumstances.

Notwithstanding the problems with SAHS’s business, affiliate networks encourage merchants to make payments to SAHS by listing SAHS as an affiliate in good standing, inviting SAHS staff to conferences, and occasionally even giving awards to SAHS. Whether through these network actions or based on merchants’ own failure to diligently investigate, merchants bear the brunt of SAHS’s bad actions — paying out commissions SAHS has not properly earned under stated affiliate network rules.

Users also suffer from SAHS. As a result of the ill-gotten payments paid to SAHS by merchants, SAHS receives funds with which it can and does purchase additional installations from its software distribution partners (including the nonconsensual and tricky installations shown above). Payments from Dell (and other targeted merchants) ultimately help to fund the infection of more users — slowing down more users’ PCs, making more users’ PCs unreliable, and pouring fuel onto the spyware problem. To the extent that affected users respond by buying new PCs, Dell perhaps benefits indirectly — but I gather Dell does not aspire to fund such infections.

SAHS may claim that users benefit from its presence, even if its initial installation was improper. After all, SAHS claims affiliate commissions based on users’ purchases, and SAHS stands ready to refund a share of these commissions to the responsible users. But from the perspective of users who received SAHS without meaningful disclosures, SAHS’s offer is of dubious value. Where a program arrives unrequested, users’ fears of identity theft or fraud will (rightly!) discourage them from providing the personal information necessary to receive a payment (name, address, etc.). SAHS may be offering users legitimate actual payments — but when SAHS’s installation was nonconsensual in the first place, users have no easy way to distinguish SAHS’s offer from a phishing attempt or other scam. Without payment details, SAHS will simply retain users’ funds — giving users no benefit for the unrequested intrusion on their PCs, but giving SAHS extra profits.

This is an unfortunate situation — but it’s not hopeless. Dell, Buy.com, and other affected merchants need not continue to help fund this mess. LinkShare and Commission Junction need not continue to pass money to SAHS from unwitting merchants, nor need they continue taking 30% cuts for themselves. Stay tuned.

Update (September 13): News coverage discusses the problem of SAHS retaining commissions for users who never requested SAHS and never even registered for rebates. CJ claims that they have not confirmed "SAHS performing redirects on unregistered users," but admits that this would be a "major violation." I have provided CJ with screenshot and video proof, showing SAHS doing exactly that.

Video: eBates Installed through Security Holes

I’ve long been a fan of online shopping site Ebates. Sign up for their service, visit their web site, click through their special links to merchants (including merchants as distinguished as Dell, Expedia, IBM, and L.L. Bean), and earn a small cash back, generally a few percent of your purchase.

But another side of Ebates’ business has become controversial: Ebates uses a software download called "Moe Money Maker" (MMM) to automatically claim merchants’ affiliate commissions, then pay users rebates — even if users don’t visit Ebates’ web site, and even if users don’t click through Ebates’ special links.

Why the controversy? I see at least two worries:

1) Aggressive software installations.

  • Partial screen-shot taken from video of Ebates installation through a security hole, without any notice or consent.Partial screen-shot taken from video of Ebates installation through a security hole, without any notice or consent.

    Users visiting ebates.com can receive MMM software merely by filling out a form and failing to uncheck the "I would like to download MMM" checkbox (checked by default).

  • Users downloading certain third-party programs (screen-savers and the like) receive MMM as part of the bundle — disclosed, in my testing, but often with a long license in a small box, such that many users don’t fully understand what they’re getting.
  • Most troublingly, there have been persistent allegations of Ebates installed without any notice or consent whatsoever. I had always discounted these allegations until I saw the proof for myself earlier last month. See video of Ebates MMM installed through security holes.

2) Claiming affiliate commissions that would otherwise accrue to other affiliates. Many web sites receive affiliate commissions when users make purchases through special links to merchants’ web sites. (See e.g. Lawrence Lessig‘s "Get It Here" page.) Network rules (Commission Junction , Linkshare) prohibit Ebates from interceding in these transactions; instead, the independent web sites are to receive the commissions for purchases through their links. But Ebates’ software sometimes claims commissions anyway — specifically contrary to applicable rules. These behaviors have been alleged and reported for years, and recently documented in a series of videos (videos of particular interest. Apple, Cooking.com, Diamonds International, JJill, Lillian Vernon, Sharper Image, Sony). If Ebates’ prohibited interventions were only temporary, they would be easy to sweep away as mere malfunctions. But when problems continue for years, to Ebates’ direct financial benefit and to others’ detriment, the behavior becomes harder to disregard.

Meanwhile, Ebates has inspired copy-cat programs with similar business models but even more controversial execution. I’ve recently made literally scores of videos of eXactAdvertising‘s CashBack by BargainBuddy installed through security holes, and also of TopRebates/WebRebates installed through security holes — always without any notice or consent whatsoever. These programs remain participants in the Commission Junction and LinkShare networks — presumably receiving commissions from these networks and their many merchants (CashBack merchants, TopRebates merchants). I’m surprised that so many merchants continue to do business with these software providers — including so many big merchants, who in other contexts would never consider partnering with software installed without notice and consent.

I think the core problem here is skewed incentives. Affiliate networks (CJ and LinkShare) have no financial incentive to limit Ebates’ operation. Instead, the more commissions claimed by Ebates, the more money flows through the networks — letting the networks charge fees of their own. In principle we might expect merchants to refuse to pay commissions not fairly earned — but merchants’ affiliate managers sometimes have secondary motives too. In particular, affiliate managers tend to get bonuses when their affiliate programs grow, which surely makes them particularly hesitant to turn away the large transaction volume brought by MMM’s automatic commission system. That’s not to say some merchants don’t knowingly and intentionally participate in Ebates — some merchants understand that they’ll be paying Ebates a commission on users’ purchases even when users type in merchants’ web addresses directly, and some merchants don’t mind paying these fees. But on the whole I worry that Ebates isn’t doing much good for many merchants, even as its software comes to be installed on more and users’ PCs, with or without their consent.

The Ebates Money trail: users -> merchants -> affiliate networks -> Ebates -> Ebates distributorsThe Ebates Money trail: users -> merchants -> affiliate networks -> Ebates -> Ebates distributors

For users who share my continued interest in following the money trail, the diagram at right summarizes Ebates’ complicated business model. Users make purchases from merchants, causing merchants to pay affiliate commissions (via affiliate networks such as LinkShare and Commission Junction) to Ebates. Ebates in turn pays commissions to those who cause its software to be installed, including those installers who install Ebates’ software through security holes, without notice or consent.

Ebates Terms & Conditions Allow Removing Other Programs

Finally, note that Ebates has joined the ranks of software providers who, in their EULAs, claim the right to remove other software programs. Ebates’ MMM Terms & Conditions demand:

"Ebates may disable or uninstall any other product or software tool that might interfere with the operability of the Moe Money Maker Software or otherwise preempt or render inoperative the Moe Money Maker Software … In installing the Moe Money Maker Software, you authorize Ebates to disable, uninstall, or delete any application or software that might, in Ebates’ opinion nullify its function."

Ebates is right to worry that a user can only successfully run a single automatic commission-claiming program. But this license language allows Ebates to delete far more than competing commission programs. For example, if Ad-Aware removes MMM as spyware, thereby "interfering with the operability" of MMM, then the license purports to give Ebates the right to remove Ad-Aware.

Update (December 15): Ebates staff wrote to me to report that they have narrowed the clause quoted above. Ebates’ current Terms allow disabling only "shoping or discount software," not general-purpose software removal tools like Ad-Aware. Ebates staff further note that they have never exercised the rights granted under the prior Terms text. However, Archive.org reports that Ebates’ Terms included the broad "any application or software" language as long ago as August 2003.

Thanks to Ian Lee, Internet Marketing Strategist & Affiliate Manager of ADS-Links.com, for recommendations on video production methods.