Critiquing C-NetMedia’s Anti-Spyware Offerings and Advertising Practices

Not every "anti-spyware" program is what it claims to be. Some truly have users’ interests at heart — identifying and removing bona fide risks to privacy, security, stability, or performance. Others resort to a variety of tricks to confuse users about what they’re getting and why they purportedly need it.

This article reports the results of my examination of anti-spyware software from C-NetMedia. I show:

  • Deceptive advertising, deceptive product names, and deceptive web site designs falsely suggest affiliation with security industry leaders. Details.
  • The use of many disjoint product names prevents consumers from easily learning more about C-Net, its reputation, and its practices. Details.
  • High-pressure sales tactics, including false positives, overstate the urgency of paying for an upgraded version. Details.

Note that C-NetMedia is unrelated to the well-known technology news site CNET Networks. Details.

Deceptive advertising, deceptive product names, and deceptive web site design falsely suggest affiliation with security industry leaders.

Some C-NetMedia products are marketed using practices, keywords, labels, and layouts that falsely suggest they come from security industry leaders. This suggestion comes from both the actions of C-Net itself, as well as from the actions of C-Net’s marketing partners.

Google Shows Deceptive Ads for C-Net's Products
Google Shows Deceptive Ads for C-NetMedia’s Products

Consider the top three ads for a Google search for "Spybot", a popular early anti-spyware program (full name "Spybot Search & Destroy"). As shown at right, the top three ads each specifically mention "Spybot" — the first two, in directory names; the third, in its domain name. Furthermore, all three ads also include the distinctive and original phrase "Search & Destroy" that specifically describes the genuine Spybot product. Yet in fact each of these three ads takes users to the unrelated site (emphasis added) (screenshots: 1, 2, 3). Clicking the first ad immediately takes a user to via the ClickBank advertising network. As to the second and third ads, traffic flows through independent "landing page" sites which in turn show ClickBank links to promote Spywarebot. These landing pages are hosted on the deceptively-named domains named and — each further (but falsely) suggesting an affiliation with the genuine "spybot" product.

C-NetMedia partners similarly fill top ad spots for a search for "Ad-Aware", another well-known anti-spyware program. The top ad promotes C-Net’s — a name particularly likely to confuse users because the ad’s title and domain differ from the user’s request by just a single letter. The first ad takes the user to adwarealert immediately, while the second ad takes users to a landing page which also promotes (again via ClickBank).

Other deceptive C-NetMedia partners pervade search results for spyware-removal search terms. See e.g. "" using distinctive "Spybot" "Search & Destroy" marks to promote C-Net’s See also C-Net’s advertising with ad title "Microsoft Antispyware" in Google results for searches on "Microsoft Spyware". Because the Registrysmart ad title touts "Microsoft Antispyware", users might reasonably think the ad will yield an official Microsoft site that actually provides the free "Microsoft Antispyware" product. But in fact the link leads only to a C-Net site with paid products.

C-NetMedia may claim that these ads were placed by affiliates. But the actions of these affiliates are prominent — occurring on search terms as well-known as "Spybot" and "Ad-Aware." These actions are also longstanding: My October 2006 False and Deceptive Pay-Per-Click Ads shows that some of these ads have continued for more than a year. Furthermore, these affiliates act for C-Net’s benefit, and C-Net has the right and ability to monitor them, to oversee their activities, and to limit their efforts as it sees fit. Finally, FTC litigation confirms that companies can be liable for the actions of their affiliates and marketing partners. See e.g. US v. APC Entertainment (advertiser liable for sexually-explicit unsolicited commercial email sent by its affiliates), In the Matter of Zango, Inc. (advertising software company liable for nonconsensual and deceptive installations of its software by its partners), In the Matter of Direct Revenue LLC (same).

C-NetMedia’s involvement in these advertising practices is heightened by C-Net’s own selection of product names. C-Net, not its affiliates, chose product names so close to established market leaders — names that invite consumer confusion. C-Net furthers the confusion by calling its products "official" (e.g. "The Official Ad-Ware Client", emphasis added) when there is no meaningful sense in which C-Net’s products are more "official" than any other. Indeed, when users arrive at C-Net sites after requesting similarly-named better-known competitors, C-Net’s offerings are exactly not the official products users specifically requested by name.

Some C-Net sites are also deceptive in that their titles and graphic design falsely suggest they are an official part of Windows. Consider The site’s heading presents the generic title "AntiSpyware For Windows" — without mentioning any company name or showing any other prominent indication that the product is not actually part of Windows. Furthermore, shares numerous graphic design elements with official Microsoft sites: Like official Microsoft sites, features a broad blue bar across the top of the page, bold white type at top-left with smaller white type at top-right, a grey navigation bar down the left edge (with thin black lines as section separators, and with simple black text), a grey nav bar down the right edge (with broad grey bars to separate sections, and with blue bulleted text), a grey background, a skewed 3D rendering of a product screen at page center, and a vivid colored bubble at top-center, linking to a product download. See the two screenshots below — on the left, and the official Microsoft Windows Defender download page on the right. These many visual similarities make it especially likely that a user at will mistakenly believe the site is an official Microsoft offering.

Microsoft Windows Defender

Some C-NetMedia sites give users the false impression that they are bona fide informational sites rather than commercial advertisements. For example, presents itself as a general-purpose spyware information site, but actually promotes only one product — C-Net’s "AntiSpyware For Windows." Furthermore, claims to have "one goal and one purpose: to win the war on spyware" — suggesting a non-commercial purpose, when in fact Remover charges a fee for its removal program. The totality of these practices suggests that a user at may reasonably think he is viewing an ordinary informational site and/or a source of unbiased reviews, when in fact the site is a C-Net advertisement.

Hindering Consumer Investigations through Use of Numerous Product Names and Domains

C-Net uses exceptionally many product names and domain names. My analysis indicates that the following products and domains all come from C-NetMedia:

Site Whois IP Address Trademark Whois-Proxy Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia 77047467 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77047467 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia Syber Corporation
8400 East Prencitce Avenue, Ste 1500  
Greenwood Village CO 80111 Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77073855 – December 30, 2006 – C-Netmedia    Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77047469 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia C&C Networks
3630 County Ct S
Mobile, AL 36619 – C-Netmedia    77047443 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77047440 – November 19, 2006 – C-Netmedia  Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77073969 – December 31, 2006 – C-Netmedia Ofer Shoshani
747 Durshire Way
Sunnyvale, CA 94087    Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia 77047441 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia 77047470 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77073857 – December 31, 2006 – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77073859 – December 31, 2006 – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) – C-Netmedia 77047445 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia Bruce Cope
3630 County Ct S
Mobile, AL 36619 PrivacyPost (Dotster) 77047441 – November 20, 2006 – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) 77047438 – November 19, 2006 – C-Netmedia Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) Domains By Proxy (GoDaddy) C&C Networks
3630 County Ct S
Mobile, AL 36619  

The United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Search provides the brunt of my evidence that the listed sites are associated with C-Netmedia. Other evidence comes from the network block that C-Net uses at Rackspace. (Rackspace also hosts all of the other listed C-Net sites. The server is indeed a Rackspace server, despite its distant IP address.) My conclusion is bolstered by the many other similarities among these sites, including their common substantive theme, structure, layout, registration method, and advertising relationships and suppliers. Furthermore, the sites’ programs are largely similar — with identical detections, false-positives, and user interfaces.

An ordinary user would face substantial difficulty in determining that a given site is operated by C-NetMedia or in finding C-Net’s contact information. At a few of the sites, a user would at least find a street address in Whois. But the other domains all lack useful Whois data. Furthermore, while the listed web sites offer email and/or chat support, they all lack a phone number, mailing address, or even a legal name or place of incorporation. A user seeking to send a formal complaint therefore has no clear means to do so. Savvy users might notice a reference to C-NetMedia within a program’s license agreement. But these references appear only in the licenses shown by programs’ installers — not in the license agreements linked from the corresponding web sites. So these references to C-Net are especially hard to find after a user has already received C-Net software.

A user who manages to identify the C-Net company name, e.g. from trademark applications, is still substantially stymied in learning more about the company. The name "C-NetMedia" immediately suggests an association with CNET Networks, Inc., the well-known news site at In fact C-NetMedia and CNET Networks are entirely unrelated. But by choosing a name that matches an existing company, C-Net hinders attempts to learn more about its practices: Searches for "C-Net" overwhelmingly yield references to CNET Networks.

C-Net’s use of many names brings valuable benefits to C-Net but real costs to users: The numerous names prevent users’ unfavorable views of specific C-Net products (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) from easily spreading to other C-Net products. If C-Net had only a single product, users searching for that product would easily find the complaints of prior dissatisfied users. But by shifting from name to name, C-Net can abandon product names with unfavorable coverage, in each instance starting fresh with a new name. In this regard, C-Net’s approach is strikingly similar to Direct Revenue’s use of dozens of company and product names.

It seems C-Net sometimes uses the name 2squared to describe its offerings. The site claims to be the maker of at least some of C-Net’s products (including ErrorSweeper and RegClean). While C-Net’s trademark applications list one address in Mobile, Alabama (590 B Schillinger Road South, Suite 8), 2squared provides the adjacent suite 10.

C-Net’s trademark applications all list Erik Mv. Pelton as their attorney of record. Mr. Pelton’s site indicates that he is a bona fide trademark attorney with an office in Arlington, Virginia.

High-Pressure Sales Tactics and False Positives

C-NetMedia SpywareBot False Positives C-NetMedia SpywareBot False Positives

Once a user installs C-NetMedia’s free trial software, C-Net resorts to high-pressure tactics to encourage users to make a purchase.

I tested C-Net’s SpywareBot on a clean PC running Windows XP with no service packs,. My test PC was supplemented only by the ordinary analysis tools I use to study spyware and adware infections. SpywareBot detected Regsnap, my registry change-tracking tool, as the "Absolute Keylogger." Bold red "Warning" messages repeatedly alerted me to the supposed "43 parasites" on my computer, and a "toast"-style slider arose from the bottom-right corner of my screen. Perhaps this was just an ordinary false positive — a mistake that any security program can make. But C-Net’s error was unusually self-serving in that C-Net requires users to pay a fee — in this case $19.95 — before removing any of the items it detects.

C-Net’s many products mean extended further investigation would be required to fully determine the effectiveness and error rates of C-Net’s various programs. Due to the seriousness of the advertising practices described above, I have chosen to post this article without fully testing for such false positives or other deficiencies across all of C-Net’s programs and across a variety of test computers. I will update this article to link to any such research performed by others.

Other Anomalous Marketing Practices: Affiliate Programs, Certifications, and Logos

C-NetMedia’s marketing programs are striking in their generosity: C-Net offers its affiliates 70% commissions on users’ purchases. Such large commissions tend to suggest that charges to users bear little relationship to the underlying cost of providing the service. In particular, when a user arrives at C-Net’s site through an affiliate link, at least 70% of the user’s payment goes towards marketing costs. But if marketing receives 70% of revenue, relatively little remains to fund product design or other core business functions. A user might be better off with a free product — such as the free products with names nearly identical to the names C-Net selected.

Many C-Net sites feature McAfee Hacker Safe certifications.C-NetMedia sites systematically and prominently tout certifications that are substantially irrelevant to the true attributes of C-Net software. For example, C-Net’s Adwarealert site boasts a McAfee HackerSafe logo. When this logo appears on a site offering security software, a user might reasonably think the logo means the site’s software will keep the user safe from hackers. But in fact HackerSafe signifies nothing of the kind: HackerSafe has merely checked the Adwarealert web server for a set of known security problems. C-Net’s use of the HackerSafe certification thus has the tendency to deceive, i.e. to leave users with an untrue impression of the certification’s significance.

Update (February 14, 11:30am): I notice that McAfee has withdrawn HackerSafe certification of C-NetMedia sites. C-NetMedia sites now show blank space where the logo previously appeared.

Adwarealert also features a Microsoft "Certified for Windows Vista" seal. Microsoft’s certification list confirms that Adwarealert did receive this certification. But it seems Adwarealert does not truly qualify for this certification because Adwarealert violates rule 1.11 of the Microsoft certification requirements, namely the requirement that a certified program comply with all applicable guidelines from the Anti-Spyware Coalition. The ASC’s Risk Model negatively characterizes incomplete or inaccurate identifying information; obfuscation; and misleading, confusing deceptive or coercive messaging or false claims to induce users to take action. By failing to readily provide accurate contact information, by using misleading product names, and by reporting false positives with a request for payment, Adwarealert violates each of these requirements. I therefore conclude that Adwarealert is ineligible for the "Certified for Windows Vista" certification.

C-NetMedia’s sites also feature unsubstantiated claims of product benefits. C-Net sites feature the following logos: "Guaranteed – 100% No Adware or Spyware", "#1 Most Advanced Privacy Software", "#1 Registry Cleaner", "100% Safe and Secure", "Total Privacy Protection," "Most Advanced Anti-Spyware Detection," and "World’s #1 Spyware Remover." None of these claims contains, references, or links to any substantiation, documentation, or other supporting details. Some of these claims are presented in graphical form, i.e. in logos that appear to be endorsements or certifications. But C-Net gives no indication of any bona fide third party offering these endorsements; instead, the graphics seem to be C-Net’s own creation.

Work To Be Done

My analysis shows ample room for online advertising and security vendors to better protect users from C-NetMedia’s deceptive advertising practices:

  • Google and other search engines could block the widespread deceptive ads from C-NetMedia and its marketing partners. C-Net and its partners have continued these practices for more than a year. Google claims to be tough on malware, and Google does exclude some harmful organic search results. But Google has been ineffective in removing the false and deceptive ads shown above, among many others, despite ample complaints from users and security researchers.
  • McAfee could remove its Hacker Safe certification from C-NetMedia sites. At present, the McAfee logo gives users the false impression that McAfee endorses C-Net and the McAfee vouches for the effectiveness of C-Net’s software. I gather neither is truly the case. Indeed, McAfee’s HackerSafe certifies some C-Net sites at the same time that McAfee’s SiteAdvisor characterizes rates those same sites as red. In my view, the SiteAdvisor rating better describes the view of security experts and better serves typical users. (Disclosure: I serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of McAfee SiteAdvisor.) (Update, February 14, 11:30am: McAfee has withdrawn HackerSafe certification of C-NetMedia sites.)
  • Microsoft could withdraw its Certified for Windows Vista certification on the basis of C-NetMedia’s violations of various ASC rules, as cited above. Anticipating this kind of harmful marketing practices, Microsoft’s certification rules provide ample basis for excluding C-Net on the basis of its deceptive advertising. Microsoft’s concern should be particularly acute because C-Net copied the layout and format of the Microsoft Antispyware site, because C-Net marketing partners trade on Microsoft’s brand name and product names, and because C-Net products worsen the experience of Windows users (i.e. by charging a fee for security software, when Microsoft provides similar software for free).
  • ClickBank could eject C-NetMedia from ClickBank’s affiliate network due to the pattern and practice of false and misleading ads placed by ClickBank affiliates in their promotion of C-Net offers. ClickBank’s Client Contract specifically prohibits fraudulent, deceptive, false or misleading information in advertising messages (clause 7.n.), and Clickbank reserves the right to immediately suspend violators (9.d.). But at present, C-NetMedia seems to remain a ClickBank clent in good standing.

Thanks to security researcher Janie Whitty for references on C-NetMedia’s trademark registrations.

Which Anti-Spyware Programs Delete Which Cookies?

I’ve always been puzzled by the divergent attitudes of anti-spyware programs towards advertising cookies. Some anti-spyware programs take their criticism to the extreme, with terms like "spy cookies" and serious overstatements of the alleged harm from cookies. Others ignore cookies altogether. In between are some interesting alternatives — like ignoring cookies by default (but with optional detection), giving users an easy way to hide cookie detections, and flagging cookies as "low risk" detections.

I understand why some users are concerned about cookies. It’s odd and, at first, surprising that "just" visiting a web site can deposit files on a user’s hard disk. Cookies are often hard or impossible to read by hand, and ad networks’ cookies offer user no direct benefit.

Unrequested arrival, no benefit to users — sounds a lot like spyware? So say some, including the distinguished Walt Mossberg. But that’s actually not my view. Unlike the spyware I focus on, cookies don’t interrupt users with extra ads, don’t slow users’ PCs, can’t crash, and require only trivial bandwidth, memory, and CPU time.

Cookies do have some privacy consequences — especially when they integrate users’ behavior on multiple sites. But such tracking only occurs to the extent that the respective sites allow it — an important check on the scope of such practices. That’s not to say shared cookies can’t be objectionable, but to my eye these concerns are small compared with more pressing threats to online privacy (like search engine data retention). Plus, ad networks usually address privacy worries through privacy policies limiting how users’ data may be used.

All in all, I don’t think cookies raise many serious concern for typical users. Still, I know and respect others who hold contrary views. It seems reasonable people can disagree on this issue, especially on the harder cases posed by certain shared cookies.

Earlier this summer, Vinny Lingham and Clicks2Customers asked me to test the current state of cookie detections by major anti-spyware programs. They had noticed that for those anti-spyware programs that detect cookies, not all cookies are equally affected. Which cookies are most affected? By which anti-spyware programs? I ran tests to see — forming a suite of cookies, then scanning them with the leading anti-spyware programs.

Vinny is generously letting me share my results with others who are interested. The details:

Cookies Detected by Anti-Spyware Programs: The Current Status

See also Vinny’s introduction and commentary.

Deciding Who To Trust

This article is a bit different from most of my site: My other articles generally discuss specific vendors, their practices, and how they cause harm. This article offers a possible solution — from a company that, let me say at the outset, has invited me to join its advisory board. They didn’t ask me to write this; I’m writing on my own. And they don’t control me or what I write. But for those not interested in a commercial service that may help protect users from spyware, please read no further.

Much of the spyware problem results from users visiting sites that turn out to be untrustworthy or simply malevolent. I’m certainly not inclined to blame the victimized users — it’s hardly their fault that sites run security exploits, offer undisclosed advertising software, or show tricky EULAs that are dozens of pages long. But the resulting software ultimately ends up on users’ computers because users browsed to sites that didn’t pan out.

How to fix this problem? In theory, it seems easy enough. First, someone needs to examine popular web sites, to figure out which are untrustworthy. Then users’ computers need to automatically notify them — warn them! — before users reach untrustworthy sites. These aren’t new ideas. Indeed, half a dozen vendors have tried such strategies in the past. But for various reasons, their efforts never solved the problem. (Details below).

This month, a new company is announcing a system to protect users from untrustworthy web sites: SiteAdvisor. They’ve designed a set of robots — automated web crawlers, virtual machines, and databases — that have browsed hundreds of thousands of web sites. They’ve tracked which sites install spyware — what files installed, what registry changes, what network traffic. And they’ve built a browser plug-in that provides automated notification of worrisome sites — handy red balloons when users stray into risky areas, along with annotations on search result pages at leading search engines.

The SiteAdvisor Idea

I’ve long known that the best way to assess a web site’s trustworthiness is to examine and test the site. In general that’s remarkably time-consuming — requiring at least a few minutes of time, of a high-skill human researcher. But a tester is inevitably looking for a few basic characteristics. Does the site offer programs for download? If it does, do those programs come with bundled adware or spyware? In principle this is work better suited to a robot — a system that can perform tests around the clock, with full automation, in massive parallel, at far lower cost than a human staff person. SiteAdvisor has built such robots, and they’re running even as I write this. The results are impressive. See an example report.

Of course automated testing of web sites can find more than just spyware. What about spam? Whenever I see a web form that requests my email address, I always worry: Will the web site send me spam? Or sell my name to spammers? As with spyware, it’s a problem of trust. And it’s a problem SiteAdvisor can investigate. Fill out hundreds of thousands of forms, putting a different email address into each. Wait a few months and see which addresses get spam. Case closed.

To provide users with timely information about who to trust, SiteAdvisor has to put a plug-in into users’ browsers. In general I’m no fan of browser plug-ins; most plug-ins serve marketing companies’ interests (i.e. by showing ads) rather than actually helping users. But at just 92 pixels in width, SiteAdvisor’s plug-in is remarkably unobtrusive. I run it on my main PC, and it shares space otherwise left vacant by the Google Toolbar (the only other browser plug-in I accept). See first screenshot below, showing SiteAdvisor in action.

SiteAdvisor in action, evaluating   SiteAdvisor's detailed "dossier" report of -- reporting what downloads it offers (and what software they bundle), as well as links, emails, and other areas of  possible concern.

Of course there’s more to SiteAdvisor than just these pop-up balloons. If a user clicks "More" in a warning balloon, or otherwise searches the SiteAdvisor site, SiteAdvisor gives detailed information about the risks it found. These detailed “dossiers" report what downloads a site offers (and what software they bundle), as well as links to other sites (potentially hostile or tricky), emails (potential spam), and other areas of possible concern. See right image above, and additional screenshots.

My Role in SiteAdvisor – and How Others Can Help

I’ve been excited about SiteAdvisor — about their product, their technology, and (most importantly) their ability to help users with a serious problem — ever since I learned about the company. I’m so impressed that I agreed to join the company’s advisory board. I’m not involved in day-to-day operations, so specific suggestions are best sent to SiteAdvisor staff, not to me. That said, my relationship with SiteAdvisor is likely to be longer and deeper than my typical consulting gigs, reflecting the seriousness of my commitment to SiteAdvisor.

It’s not easy to design robots that automatically rate the web, and despite SiteAdvisor’s best efforts, their initial ratings aren’t quite perfect. With that in mind, they’re running a preview program. Interested readers can browse SiteAdvisor’s ratings and flag anything that seems wrong or incomplete. SiteAdvisor’s system anticipates its own fallibility — it offers numerous areas for users to contribute comments. There’s even space for reviewed web sites to comment on their ratings — for example, to explain why they think they’ve been unfairly criticized.

Why get involved? If you think, as I do, that SiteAdvisor will attract a large group of passionate users, then it’s sensible to help improve the reviews these users receive. Also, SiteAdvisor has produced an incredible dataset, which they’ll be sharing under a Creative Commons license. In the coming months, I’ll be using this data for research; I’m anticipating some exciting articles analyzing how and where users get infected with spyware. Meanwhile, preview participants get access to SiteAdvisor’s fascinating dossiers (example) — a great way to track which programs install which spyware.

SiteAdvisor in Context

As I mentioned above, SiteAdvisor isn’t the first group seeking to improve the web by rating web sites. But SiteAdvisor makes major advances over previous efforts.

An ActiveX installer with a misleading company name, purportedly  "click yes to continue."An ActiveX installer with a misleading company name, purportedly "click yes to continue."

Consider, for example, the code-signing system associated with ActiveX controls. (See example at right.) Anticipating security problems with ActiveX, Microsoft designed IE so that it only shows an ActiveX installation prompt if the ActiveX package is properly signed by an accredited code-signer like (in this example) VeriSign. VeriSign in turn sets criteria on who can receive these certificates. But despite these checks, the system turns out to be woefully insecure. For one, VeriSign wasn’t always tough in limiting who can get its certs. (The cert at right was issued a company calling itself "click yes to continue," a highly misleading company name. Additional examples.) In addition, VeriSign’s main requirement is that a company provide a verifiable name. A company’s software may be highly objectionable — pop-up ads, privacy violations, spam zombies, you name it — but if the company gives its true name and pays VeriSign $200 to $600, then they’re likely to receive a certificate. After I criticized VeriSign’s cert-issuing practices this spring, VeriSign tightened its processes somewhat, but its Thawte subsidiary continues to issue certificates to companies that users rightly dislike. And other cert-issuers are even worse.

The ActiveX debacle shows at least three problems that can plague a certification system.

1) Certifying the wrong thing. ActiveX code-signing certifies characteristics of lesser concern to typical users. In particular, ActiveX code-signing it certifies that a vendor is who it says it is, and code-signing certifies that the specified vendor really did develop the program being offered. That’s a nice start, but it’s not what most users are most worried about other. Instead, users reasonably want to know: Is this program safe? Will it hurt my computer? As it turns out, a code-signing certificate says nothing about trustworthiness of the underlying code. But seeing the "verified" statement and VeriSign’s well-respected name, users mistakenly think code-signing means a program is sure to be safe.

2) Dependent on payment. I worry about certification businesses that receive payment from the companies being certified. If VeriSign issues a code-signing certificate, it gets paid $200 to $600. If it denies a cert, it gets $0. So it’s no surprise that lots of certificates get issued. I credit VeriSign’s good intentions, on the whole. But VeriSign staff face some odd and troubling incentives as they try to meet their code-signing financial objectives.

3) Complaints. There’s often no clear procedure for users to complain of improperly-issued certificates. I previously noted that VeriSign lacked a formal complaint and investigation process. After my article, VeriSign established a complaint form. But there are no public records of complaints received, of pending complaints, or of complaint dispositions. VeriSign may be doing a great job of handling complaints and of correcting any errors, but the public has no way to know.

Remarkably, these same problems plague other self-styled trust authorities. TRUSTe‘s main seal, its Web Privacy Seal, largely certifies that a web site has a privacy policy and that the site has agreed to resolve disputes in the way that TRUSTe requires. The policy might be highly objectionable and one-sided, but TRUSTe will still issue its seal. From the perspective of typical users, this is a "certifying the wrong thing" problem: Users expect TRUSTe to tell them that a site’s privacy policy is fair and that users can confidently provide personal information to the site, but in fact the certificate implies no such thing. (Indeed, six months after I revealed Direct Revenue, eZula, Hotbar, and Webhancer as TRUSTe certificate-holders, TRUSTe’s member list says all but eZula are all still members in good standing. In addition, these companies are known not for their web sites but for their advertising software — products TRUSTe’s certificate doesn’t cover at all. So TRUSTe’s certification is especially likely to mislead users seeking to evaluate these vendors.) Furthermore, TRUSTe receives much of its funding from the vendors it certifies, raising the worry of financial incentives to issue undeserved certificates. Finally, when I’ve sent complaints to TRUSTe, I haven’t always felt I received a prompt or appropriate response. So in my view TRUSTe suffers the same three problems I flag for the VeriSign/code-signing system.

TrustWatch certifies 180solutions as a "verified secure" siteTrustWatch certifies 180solutions as a "verified secure" site

TrustWatch‘s search engine and toolbar are superficially similar to SiteAdvisor: Both companies offer toolbars that claim to help users stay safe online. But TrustWatch suffers from the same kinds of mistakes described above. TrustWatch generally endorses a site if it has a certificate from GeoTrust, Entrust, TRUSTe, or HackerSafe. These groups vary in their respective policies, but none of them affirmatively checks for the privacy violations, spyware, spam, or other ill effects that users reasonably worry about. Instead, their focus is on SSL certificates — important for some purposes, but peripheral to today’s biggest security problems. Meanwhile, the TrustWatch endorsers charge for their certs — raising the payment problems flagged above. Predictably, TrustWatch’s system yields poor results. For example, TrustWatch certifies 180solutions and Direct Revenue with its highest "verified secure" rating. That’s an endorsement few security experts would share.

At least one certification system (besides SiteAdvisor) seems immune from the problems described above: Stan JamesOutfoxed provides a non-profit self-organizing assessment of web site trustworthiness, based on recommendations from a web of trusted experts. Because individual users can decide which recommenders to trust, Outfoxed offers the prospect of ratings based on characteristics users actually care about — solving the "wrong thing" problem. Outfoxed doesn’t charge web sites for ratings, and Outfoxed’s relationship-based trust assessments can distribute meaningful feedback to assure rating accuracy. So Outfoxed addresses the problems described above, and I think it reflects a major step forward. That said, as a self-organizing system, Outfoxed needs a critical mass of experts in order to take off. I worry that it might not get there.

Separately, a few security firms have designed automated systems to seek out spyware. See Microsoft’s HoneyMonkeys and Webroot’s Phileas. But these projects only detect exploits. In particular, they don’t identify the social engineering and misleading installations that web users face with increasing regularity.

SiteAdvisor won’t suffer from the three major problems described above. SiteAdvisor tests the specific behaviors most objectionable to typical users — extra pop-up ads, privacy violations, gummed up PCs, and of course spam — and SiteAdvisor doesn’t give a site a green light just because it has an SSL cert or a posted privacy policy. SiteAdvisor won’t issue certifications upon payment of a fee. And in addition to soliciting an abundance of comments, SiteAdvisor promptly and automatically publishes comments for public review. So, though I’ve been critical of other certification systems, I’m truly excited about SiteAdvisor.

Threats to Spyware Critics

The past three months have brought a dramatic spike in threats, demand letters, and “requests” — sent from companies who make unwanted software (some might call the programs spyware) to those who detect, remove, block, or write about these programs.

Threatening or suing critics isn’t a new idea. Claria made headlines in September 2003 when it filed suit against PC Pitstop, alleging unfair business practices, trade libel, defamation, and interference with contract arising out of PC Pitstop’s description of Claria’s software. But with more and more threats with each passing week, it’s becoming hard even to keep track of the accusations. I’ve therefore put together a new table listing complainants, targets, and summarized demands.


Threats Against Spyware Detectors, Removers, and Critics.

The News, at My Site and Elsewhere

I’ve recently written about increasingly controversial online schemes — from installations through security holes, to spyware companies deleting each other, to programs that set affiliate cookies to claim commissions they haven’t fairly earned.

These aren’t nice practices, so I suppose it comes as no surprise that someone — perhaps some group or company that doesn’t like what I’m writing — has sought to knock my site offline. For much of Monday and Tuesday, as well as several hours last week, all of was unreachable. My prior web host, Globat, tells me I was the target of the biggest DDoS attack they’ve ever suffered — some 600MB+/second.

The Operations, Analysis, and Research Center at the Internet Systems ConsortiumDDoS attacks continue, but I’m fortunate to be back online — entirely thanks to incredible assistance from Paul Vixie of the Internet Systems Consortium. You may know Paul as the author of Bind or as co-founded of MAPS. (Or just see his Wikipedia entry.) But he’s also just an all-around nice guy and, apparently, a glutton for punishment. Huge DDoS attack? Paul is an expert at tracking online attackers, and he’s not scared. A special thanks to his Operations, Analysis, and Research Center (OARC) for hosting me. In any case, I apologize for my site’s inaccessibility yesterday. I think and hope I’ve now taken steps sufficient to keep the site operational.

Meanwhile, there’s lots of spyware news to share. I now know of fourteen different states contemplating anti-spyware legislation — a near-overwhelming list that is partiucularly worrisome since so many bills are silent on the bad practices used by the companies harming the most computer users. (Indeed, seven of the bills are near-perfect copies of the California bill I and others have criticized as exceptionally ineffective.) At the same time, federal anti-spyware legislation continues moving forward — but in a weak form that I fear does more harm than good.

Then there’s COAST’s dissolution — to my eye, the predictable result of attempting to certify providers of unwanted software when their practices remain deceptive. It’s reassuring to see Webroot standing up for consumers’ control of their PCs, though surprising to see Computer Associates defend COAST’s certification procedure as "valuable." Now that Webroot and CA have withdrawn from COAST, COAST seems bound to disappear — probably better for users than a COAST that continues certifying programs that sneak onto users’ PCs.

The final surprise of last week’s news: Technology Crossover Ventures joined in a $108 million round of VC funding for Webroot. Wanting to own a piece of Webroot is perfectly understandable. But TCV is also an investor in Claria, a provider of advertising software that Webroot removes. (See also other investors supporting spyware.) How can TCV fund both Claria (making unwanted software) and Webroot (helping users remove such software)? TCV seems aware of the issue: They’ve recently removed Claria from their Companies page. But other sources — Yahoo! Finance, Private Equity Week,, and even the Google cache — all confirm that the investment occurred.