Current Ask Toolbar Practices

Last year I documented Ask toolbars installing without consent as well as installing by targeting kids. Ask staff admitted both practices are unacceptable, and Ask promised to make them stop. Unfortunately, Ask has not succeeded.

In today’s post, I report notable current Ask practices. I show Ask ads running on kids sites and in various noxious spyware, specifically contrary to Ask’s prior promises. I document yet another installation of Ask’s toolbar that occurs without user notice or consent. I point out why Ask’s toolbar is inherently objectionable — especially its rearrangement of users’ browsers and its excessive pay-per-click ads to the effective exclusion of ordinary organic links. I compare Ask’s practices with its staff’s promises and with governing law — especially "deceptive door opener" FTC precedent, prohibiting misleading initial statements even where clarified by subsequent statements.


Current Practices of IAC/Ask Toolbars

Direct Revenue’s Dirty Documents

On Tuesday, the New York Attorney General filed suit against notorious spyware vendor Direct Revenue. In a detailed complaint, the NYAG alleged Direct Revenue surreptitiously installed spyware onto users’ computers and made its spyware exceptionally difficult to remove. The suit includes claims under New York’s General Business Law (prohibiting false advertising and deceptive business practices), New York’s Penal Law (prohibiting computer tampering), and New York’s common law prohibitions against trespass.

The NYAG’s complaint was accompanied by more than a thousand pages of exhibits and appendices. Some of these documents present the results of NYAG’s testing — narratives of misleading and nonconsensual installation, not unlike my own installation tests. But the NYAG also produced a treasure trove of documents: Internal Direct Revenue documents, records, and emails that present their strategy, intentions, and plans in great detail.

I have obtained these additional documents and posted them to a new page:

People of the State of New York v. Direct Revenue, LLC – Documents and Analysis

Some documents and findings of particular interest:

  • Revenues reported at $6.9 million in 2003, $39 million in 2004, $33 million in January-October 2005. 2004 expenses total only $13 million, for a profit margin of 66%.
  • Payments to Direct Revenue’s senior staff, totaling more than $27 million.
  • A list of distributors of Direct Revenue’s spyware, with the number of installations attributable to each.
  • Admission that Direct Revenue for a time sold a "majority" of its advertising through ad networks Traffic Marketplace and ValueClick.
  • Admission that Direct Revenue’s ads appear so frequently that they constitute "user abuse." But reducing ad frequency lowers company revenues, so frequency stays high.
  • Admission that Direct Revenue previously tracked and transmited users’ GET and POST data — names, addresses, emails — and even sent this data to third parties Hitwise and Itemizes the specific personal information collected from online forms: first name, last name, e-mail address, street address, and zip code. Hitwise reports successfully analyzing and matching users’ IDs, genders, and phone numbers.
  • Instructs making Direct Revenue harder to remove, by deleting its entry from Control Panel’s Add/Remove Programs, because too many users were relying on that method to remove Direct Revenue.
  • Report of April-June 2005 payments from Yahoo, totaling more than $600,000 in those three months alone.
  • Installation by Direct Revenue of Ebates’ Moe Money Maker onto users’ computers.
  • Listing of Direct Revenue’s many names and shell companies, all used to confuse and deceive the public.
  • Complaints from Direct Revenue partners, such as Kazaa (which called Direct Revenue’s ads "purposefully confusing to the user") and Integrated Search (which wanted Direct Revenue to include an uninstaller in Control Panel, as previously promised)
  • Threatening the Center for Democracy and Technology. Demanding revisions from CNET. Hiring an investigator to track anti-spyware researcher Webhelper, and planning tactics to intimidate him.
  • Claims I am "losing credibility in the industry" and calls me a "fanatic."
  • Endorses NYAG’s suit against Intermix as an “important opportunity to draw a bright line between purveyors of spyware and legitimate behavioral marketing companies like Direct Revenue.”
  • Scores of complaints from users (1, 2, 3 , 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) Direct Revenue staff call one complaining user an "idiot."
  • Complaints from Direct Revenue’s investors get special handling. One investor worries that another member of his investment firm, former Secretary of the Treasury Bob Rubin, may learn of Direct Revenue’s practices.
  • Reports daily revenue per user at approximately $0.015 (one and one half cents per user per day). (Compare that revenue with the harm caused to users — the amount a typical user would be willing to pay not to have Direct Revenue installed.)

See also others’ analysis of the documents.

I still have a few more documents to post, and I’ll be uploading them later today.

Nonconsensual 180 Installations Continue, Despite 180’s "S3" Screen updated February 24, 2006

On Friday morning (February 17), I received a nonconsensual installation of 180solutions Zango software through a security exploit. I was browsing an ordinary commercial web site, when I got a popup from (a major US ad network, with headquarters in Portland, Oregon) . The popup sent me to a third-party’s web site. (I’ll call that third party "X" for convenience. Details.) Then X ran a series of exploits to take control of my test PC, including using the widely-reported WMF exploit uncovered last month. Once X took control of my PC, X caused my computer to install and run 180solutions Zango software, among a dozen other programs. Notably, X fully installed 180’s Zango without me taking any action whatsoever — without me clicking "I agree," "Yes," "Finish," or any other button of any kind. X installed 180’s Zango despite 180’s new "S3" protections, intended to block these nonconsensual installations.

Most aspects of this installation are remarkably standard. "Adware" installations through security exploits are all too common. And it’s not that unusual to see traffic flowing through an ad network — even a big US ad network.

But what’s newsworthy here is that 180solutions got installed, even though 180 last year told the world that these nonconsensual installations were impossible. Effective January 1, 2006, all 180solutions distributors were required to switch to 180’s "S3" installer. 180 claimed huge benefits from the new S3 system: 180’s October 2005 press release promised:

"The S3-enabled clients … mean[] 180solutions will own the entire experience from beginning to end on all installations of its products."

180’s S3 Whitepaper (PDF) also falsely promises major benefits from S3:

"[I]nstallation cannot continue until the user gives consent."

"Since the consent box comes directly from 180solutions, publishers are unable to turn it off."

To the contrary, my video shows installation continuing even when a user does not consent. And my video shows a distributor faking a user’s click on the consent button.

See video of the nonconsensual installation of 180 Zango, including bypassing of the 180 S3 screen. (Note: Video has been edited to hide the identity of the installer at issue. Learn why. Within the video, yellow markup provides my comments and analysis.)

180’s S3 Technology and Its Design Flaws

180's S3 installation system180’s S3 installation system

Historically, 180’s installer programs have installed 180 software immediately, on the misguided assumption that 180’s distributors already obtained user consent. That approach is overly optimistic because 180’s distributors have no incentive to ask users’ permission: If distributors seek users’ permission, users might decline that unwanted offer, preventing distributors from getting paid by 180. So it comes as no surprise that many distributors have installed 180 without obtaining users’ consent. I have publicly posted at least five different videos showing such installations (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and I have many more on file. Others have repeatedly found the same (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

180’s S3 system seeks to address these nonconsensual installations by showing users a notice screen before 180solutions software installs onto their PCs. 180’s distributors are now supposed to run 180’s "stub" installer to display this notice screen; then users can choose whether or not to proceed. See example screen at right.

As a threshold matter, I don’t think 180’s S3 screen provides an accurate, truthful, complete disclosure of 180’s important effects. As I explained last month, the S3 screen oddly describes 180 only as showing "ads," without mentioning that these ads appear in "pop-ups" — the essential characteristic reasonable users most need to know in order to decide whether they want 180’s software. The S3 screen also fails to describe the important privacy effects of installing 180’s software — that 180’s software will tell 180’s servers many of the sites users visit. The S3 screen does show a EULA — but it’s in an oddly-shaped box, and its text can’t be copied to the clipboard. Finally, the S3 screen labels its affirmative button "Finish" — even though the S3 screen is known to appear in circumstances where it is the first screen mentioning installation of 180’s software. A user cannot be asked to "finish" what he has not yet agreed to start; an "I agree" or "I accept" label would more clearly indicating the consent that the button is claimed to grant.

But beyond these important problems of wording and layout, the S3 installer also features a fundamental design flaw: Self-interested installers can easily bypass the S3 prompt. Installers can easily fake a click on the "Finish" button — just by simulating a single stroke of the "enter" key, or by simulating a click on a predictable button location. So faking a user’s consent is trivial — just a single Windows SendKeys API call.

Sure enough, my "X" installation reflects an installer using exactly these methods. In my video of X’s exploit-based installation of 180, the S3 notice was visible on screen for less than half a second — between 19.08 seconds and 19.57 seconds into the video. During that half-second, exploit-delivered software (installed on my test PC mere seconds before) pressed "Finish," at which point 180 completed its installation, putting itself in my System Tray (next to the Windows clock), beginning to download its supplemental files, and beginning to monitor my web browsing.

180’s Bad Partners and 180’s Flawed Business Model

180 seems to intend its S3 installer to protect 180 and users from the untrustworthiness of 180’s distribution partners. 180 is right to think that S3 makes it somewhat harder for distributors to install 180 without getting users’ consent. But the increase in difficulty isn’t much — certainly not enough to deter any serious installer. Those who want to get paid for installing 180 will find that S3 presents at most a small speedbump; it’s hardly the airtight blockade 180’s press release claims.

For 180, the appropriate response to nonconsensual installations is not merely a small improvement in installer program design. Rather, 180 should rethink its entire distribution business model. 180 has repeatedly written about the "long tail" of distributors (1, 2, 3) — 180’s plan for thousands of different web sites installing 180’s software when users browse their materials, and thousands of different programs bundling 180. It’s an interesting vision, but in my view impractical and unwise. With so many distributors, 180 will be unable to assure that each distributor really does obtain consent — rather than cheating the system, as X did.

180’s October press release correctly describes the serious harms that occur when users receive many advertising programs. "A myriad of unwanted software … can often negatively impact system performance," 180 admitted. But 180 then claimed that S3 would keep 180 out of such bundles. I disagree. According to my records, the installation at issue also installed Ad-w-a-r-e, Adservs, Integrated Search Technologies, Internet Optimizer, Media Tickets,, Quicklinks, Surfsidekick, Tagasaurus, Targetsaver, Toolbar888, Ucmore, Webhancer, Web Nexus, WinFixer, and more. These many programs collectively bombarded my test PC with an incredible 730 registry keys, 1194 registry values, 461 files, and 43 file folders. Worse, the newly-installed programs caused 61 processes to run on my test PC, via 24 EXEs set to load each time I turned on my computer. The programs even added three different toolbars to my web browser. This overwhelming burden made it difficult even to inventory and track the programs’ additions and effects. So many co-bundled programs hardly satisfy the "prevent[ing] customers … from receiving a myriad of unwanted software" promise in 180’s press release.

Why "X" and an Obscured Video?

Long-time visitors to my web site may reasonably wonder: Why the markings in my screen-capture video? And why refer to the 180 distributor as "X," rather than by its actual name and URL? After all, I’ve long provided video proof of my observations, and I’ve been naming names ever since my 2003 listing of advertisers using Gator (now Claria).

But I’ve run out of patience for being outside quality control staff for 180solutions. An episode last month was particularly instructive: Security company FaceTime found an AOL Instant Messenger worm that was installing 180solutions. 180’s response? After FaceTime reported the details, 180 trivialized the finding and issued a self-serving press release. Rather than admit that their software still becomes installed improperly, 180 danced around the issue and tried to use these wrongful installations to obtain a public relations benefit.

CDT‘s experience with 180 is similarly instructive. After two years of alerting 180solutions to its various bad practices, CDT recently ceased working with 180, instead electing to file a complaint with the FTC.

I too have decided no longer to share my work with 180solutions. As discussed in the preceding section, I have concluded that 180’s business model is fundamentally broken — that 180 cannot implement technology or enforcement to assure the proper installation of its software. Accordingly, just as CDT terminated its discussions with 180, I have resolved not to tell 180solutions which specific distributor was responsible for this installation.

Despite my decision not to work with 180 on resolving these installations, I will make my research available to those with a legitimate need to know. I expect to provide (and in some cases already have provided) this information to law enforcement officials considering action against 180solutions, to private attorneys in litigation against 180solutions, to members of the press seeking to verify my findings, and to other security researchers. Please contact me to request the original raw video file. As usual, I also retain full packet logs, raw screen-captures, registry change logs, filesystem change logs, HijackThis logs, Ad-Aware logs, and additional records.

Update (February 24): My Response to 180’s Press Release

180solutions has found and terminated the distributor I described above, which I’m now happy to reveal was But what a road to get there! 180’s press release suggests 180 figured this all out within hours of my initial post. I’m convinced that that’s false. First, 180 terminated some other bad installer — only later realizing that the installer I found was someone different. Sunbelt has the details — how we figured out (and proved) that 180 hadn’t cut off this installer when 180 issued the press release saying they had. In a blog post, 180 now admits that we’re right and their press release was wrong. (Of course the right response to a false statement in a press release is a correction press release, not a mere blog post. Otherwise, many readers might get the press release, e.g. via the news wire, but never see the blog post.).

180’s press release claims that S3 "enabled the company to go back and re-message every user who received its software [from this nonconsensual installer] and provide them a one-click uninstall." 180’s blog says the same: "We re-messaged each of [these] installs and provided … a one-click uninstall of our software." In both documents, 180 writes in the past tense ("enabled", "re-messaged", "provided" ), seemingly indicating that these re-notifications have already occurred. But I have yet to receive any such prompt, despite substantial efforts to seek it out (e.g. by repeatedly restarting my test PC). I’ve also received many 180solutions ads on my infected test PC, despite 180’s claim that it "shut off all advertisements to all installs" from this distributor. So here too, I think 180’s statements are off-base. 180 may intend or aspire to provide renotifications, and 180 may intend to shut off ads. But by all indications, 180 hasn’t actually done so, at least not yet. I’ve confirmed my findings with Sunbelt; they haven’t seen this re-notification either, and they’re still getting ads too.

180’s press release quotes 180’s CEO as saying "No software is ever hack-proof." I agree. But 180 has previously made public statements falsely indicating that its software is not susceptible to those who want to install 180 without consent. Recall 180’s S3 Whitepaper (PDF), explicitly stating “[I]nstallation cannot continue until the user gives consent" and "Publishers are unable to turn [the consent screen] off” (emphasis added). These are not claims of mere hopes or aspirations. No, 180 promised that installation "cannot" proceed without consent. But now that I’ve disproven 180’s claim, 180 tries to backpeddle and to weaken its unambiguous statement. The better approach would be to admit that 180’s prior promises went too far, and that 180’s software cannot actually deliver the benefits 180 previously described.

180’s press release concludes with a section 180 labels "a call for ‘responsible disclosure’." Citing practice among those who find security vulnerabilities in widely-deployed software, 180 says researchers should tell 180 when they find nonconsensual installations of its software, rather than keep this information to themselves or provide it to law enforcement. I understand that 180 would like to receive this information, and I do follow responsible disclosure principles when I find software vulnerabilities. But responsible disclosure principles just don’t apply to records of nonconsensual installations.

Responsible disclosure principles seek to prevent hackers from taking advantage of newly-uncovered security vulnerabilities. If hackers learned about vulnerabilities before software vendors had time to prepare patches, users would face increased security risks, with few good options for protection. So responsible disclosure principles have a clear purpose and a clear benefit to users — which is why I followed these principles when I previously found vulnerabilities in widely-deployed software.

But what I uncovered, above, is not a security vulnerability. I didn’t find a new security hole, or a new way to take advantage of some existing hole. All I found was some bad guy who’s already using these methods — and who 180 has been prepared to pay for his efforts. There’s no heightened risk of harm to users from my reporting what’s already happening. Perhaps this particular bad actor got to continue his scheme for a few more days while 180 struggled to figure out who was responsible. But that’s the entire harm that resulted from my refusal to tell 180 what happened — that’s the usual, background, ongoing risk of harm; it’s not a heightened risk created by my disclosure itself. When I posted information about these nonconsensual 180 installs, I didn’t put users at special risk of any worm or exploit, in the way that responsible disclosure principles intend to prevent.

So where does this leave us? 180’s S3 system is still broken in all the ways I initially set out. 180’s press release made claims that can be shown to be false, as did 180’s prior statements of S3’s benefits, but 180 has not properly retracted its false statements. And 180’s analogies don’t add up. I’d still like to see 180 spend more time improving its practices, and less time on premature press releases and public relations.

Thanks to TechSmith for providing me with a complimentary license of its Camtasia Studio, the video annotation software I used to mark up my screen-capture video of this installation.

Pushing Spyware through Search

This article uses data from SiteAdvisor, a company to which I serve as an advisor.

Much of the computer security industry acts like spyware is immaculately conceived. Somehow it just appears on computers, we are led to believe, and supposedly all we can do is clean up the mess after it happens, rather than prevent it in the first place. I disagree.

Now, we all love Google. I use Google’s search site all day every day, and I enjoy their downloadable applications too. So I have the greatest respect for Google’s core service. But there’s another side to their business. Indirectly, Google and other search engines make big money from spyware, through paid search advertising that infects users who don’t know any better or don’t understand what they’re getting into.

Consider a Google search for “screensavers":

Risky Entries in 'Screensavers' Search Results

The colored icons next to search results were inserted not by Google, but by the SiteAdvisor client application, based on the results of SiteAdvisor’s automated tests for each listed site. Six of Google’s ten sponsored links get "red" or "yellow" ratings — generally indicating unwanted advertising through spyware or, in some instances, high-volume commercial email. But without SiteAdvisor (or some similar protection), users would have no idea which sites were safe; they’d be at great risk of clicking through to an unsafe site, ultimately risking installation of unwanted software.

Screensaver Advertisers’ Business Model

Google surrounds its "screensavers" search results with ten ads selected from interested Google advertisers. Whenever I see a company buying an ad (online or offline) for a “free” product, I ask myself: How do they make money? With few exceptions, companies only buy online advertising when they expect to get something directly in return. (There are exceptions — dot-com bubble “eyeball” purchases, Fortune 500 “brand building,” perhaps some free ads offered by the Google Foundation.) But in the case of these screensaver providers, they’re almost certainly making money somehow if they can afford to pay Google’s high pay-per-click prices.

So how do Google’s screensaver advertisers make money? Most of Google’s screensaver advertisers really do offer screensavers that are “free” in the sense that users need not provide a credit card number. But they’re not free in the sense of being available without substantial adverse effects. Quite the contrary: Users must put up with various forms of intrusive advertising.

Let’s look at, a top-ten Google advertiser for “screensavers.”

"Funscreenz installation page is owned by BestOffersNetwork, which is another name for notorious “adware” company Direct Revenue. Recall Direct Revenue’s Newsweek profile – plenty of users (and multiple lawsuits) alleging that their software installs improperly and, in many cases, without consent. I’ve previously documented Direct Revenue installed in tricky popups, via false claims of purportedly-required add-ons, and through exploits without any consent at all.

Of course Funscreenz is not alone. Also in top "screensavers" Google results are ads for Claria, Ask Jeeves, and various adware bundlers (who distribute changing or multiple advertising programs). One top Google "screensaver" advertiser sends 15+ emails per week to those who provide an email address to get a screensaver. Results at Yahoo and MSN are similar.

Estimating Search Engine Revenues from Spyware Infections

Every time a user clicks through a search engine ad, the search engine gets paid. Google doesn’t ordinarily say how much advertisers pay. But Yahoo (which does) charges about $0.25 for a “screensavers” click. Let’s do some math. Of the users who click through to, suppose 10% actually download a screensaver – a conversion rate most web sites would celebrate. Then needs to earn $2.50 per download ($0.25/10%) just to break even. That’s a lot of money per download. But they’re buying the ads anyway, and they’re savvy decision-makers. So we can deduce that this site grosses at least $2.50 per download.

How much money do search engines make from these ads? Some initial back-of-the-envelope estimates: According to Yahoo’s keyword inventory tool, “screensaver” (and its hundred most common variants) received about 2.3 million searches in December 2005. Suppose 20% of those searchers clicked on paid links. (That’s conservative, since ads fill more than half of typical users’ screens.) As estimated above, suppose Yahoo collects $0.25 per paid click. Then Yahoo made about $115,000 in December 2005 from “screensaver” and variants. Throw in Google, with its bigger market share, and “screensaver” likely yields about $250,000 of revenue per month.

Of course, not all "screensaver" ads ultimately yield spyware. But from SiteAdvisor’s tests, it seems at least 60% push spyware, spam, or similar unwanted materials. So Google and Yahoo’s "dirty" revenue, from dubious screensavers ads, is probably about $150,000 per month.

But “screensaver” is only one of many terms that commonly leads to spyware and adware. I’ll look at other risky keywords in future articles, as I try to measure the prevalence of this problem in greater detail. Reviewing traffic data from Yahoo’s inventory tool, I’m confident that similarly-affected keywords total at least fifteen times the traffic to “screensavers.” Then Google and Yahoo make about $2.2 million per month, or $26 million per year, through this spyware-pushing advertising. That may not be big money to them, but to my eye it’s a lot.

Clearly there are quite a few estimates here. Send email for methodological improvements and alternative data sources.

Closing Thoughts

As with so many great Internet inventions, the bad guys have stormed the gates of search engines. Now is the time to start fighting back. That doesn’t mean search engines should blacklist every company I ever criticize, but some "adware" vendors are so shady that search engines could proudly refuse their money. Responsibility starts at home. More on search engines’ possible strategies in a future article.

Past work on search engines funding spyware: Yahoo ads syndicated into spyware, Google ads shown through spyware-delivered popups and other vendors’ improperly-installed toolbars.

180’s Newest Installation Practices

I’ve previously covered a variety of misleading and/or nonconsensual installations by 180solutions. I’ve recorded numerous installations through exploits (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) — without any user consent at all. I’ve found installations in poorly-disclosed bundles — for example, disclosing 180’s inclusion, but only if users happen to scroll to page 16 of a 54-page license. I’ve even documented deceptive installations at kids sites, where 180 installs without showing or mentioning a license agreement.

The Doll Idol site, which encourages users to install 180 software without a frank disclosure of 180's true effects.The Doll Idol site, which encourages users to install 180 software without a frank disclosure of 180’s true effects.

180 has cleaned up some of these practices, but the core deception remains. 180 still installs its software in circumstances where reasonable users wouldn’t expect to receive such software — including web sites that substantially cater to kids. And users still aren’t fairly told what they’re slated to receive. 180 says that it shows "advertising," but no on-screen text warns users that these ads appear in much-hated pop-ups. 180 systematically downplays the privacy consequences of installing its software — prominently telling users what the software won’t do, but failing to disclose what the software does track and transmit. All told, users may have to press a button before 180 installs on their computer, but users can’t reasonably be claimed to understand what they’re purportedly accepting.

Screenshots and detailed analysis:

180solutions’s Misleading Installation Methods –

What Claria Doesn’t Disclose (Any More)

Now that Claria no longer comes bundled with powerhouse distributors Kazaa and Grokster, and now that Claria has even terminated its fake-user-interface banner ads, one might reasonably wonder: How does Claria get onto users’ PCs? Last month I showed an example of Claria soliciting installations via banner ads served through other vendors’ spyware (which in turn had become installed without consent). But even Claria’s ordinary installations still fail to tell users what users reasonably need to know in order to make an informed choice. In particular, Claria’s current installations omit prominent mention of the word "pop-up" — the key word users need to read in order to understand what Claria is offering, and to decide whether to agree.

Claria’s Current Installation Procedure

Claria’s installations often begin with an innocuous-looking popup or popunder like the image below. These ads don’t mention Claria by name, don’t mention pop-ups or privacy consequences, and don’t mention any material adverse effects whatsoever. So it’s no surprise that users respond favorably to these offers.

Claria's initial installation solicitation, showing screensavers and mentioning that they are "free," but not mentioning that they come from Claria, that they bundle pop-up ads, or that they track where users go online.

Clicking one of Claria’s "free screensaver" ads yields a screen like that shown below. Users are specifically encouraged to click "yes." Once a user presses "yes," the user has no further opportunity to cancel installation of Claria’s software.

Claria's second installation screen.  Clicking "yes" once  installs Claria software immediately, with no further opportunity to cancel.

It’s well-known that users hate pop-up ads. But, tellingly, Claria currently fails to use the word "pop-up" anywhere in its on-screen disclosures. Claria calls its advertising "GAIN-branded ads," conveniently omitting the one word — "pop-up" — that best and most concisely describes its ads. Interestingly, Claria’s omission of the word "pop-up" reflects a change from its prior installation practice. Compare the two screenshots below, showing the prompt I observed in April 2005 (left) versus Claria’s current installation prompt (right). Notice inclusion of the word "pop-up" in the left prompt only.

Claria's April 2005 installation prompt, including the word "pop-up."   Claria's current ActiveX installation prompt -- omitting the word "pop-up."
April 2005

November 2005

Claria’s Compliance with Applicable FTC Rules

In an August 2004 interview, Claria chief privacy officer Reed Freeman set out Claria’s disclosure duties. "Material terms, as defined by the FTC, are those that are likely to affect a consumer’s conduct with respect to a product or service," Freeman explained, adding that existing law requires that "material terms have to be disclosed prior to a consumer [installing software]." Let’s accept Freeman’s statement of this rule. Surely the presence of extra pop-ups would deter a consumer from accepting Claria’s offer. If so, under Freeman’s own statement of existing law, Claria must disclose that it will show pop-ups.

Claria may try to defend its installations by noting that the word "pop-ups" appears in the "Final Step to download your free screensaver" screen, above. But in the default arrangement of windows, as they appeared on my ordinary SVGA screen, the "p" and "o" of "pop-up" were hidden behind the ActiveX popup, such that only the letters "p-ups" were visible. Hidden text cannot satisfy a FTC disclosure requirement. So this covered disclosure does not provide the kind of information that FTC rules require.

Claria may try to defend its installations by noting that it subsequently shows a "software utility user information" screen. Scrolling through this screen will ultimately lead to information about Claria’s pop-ups. But the document is lengthy, and typical users will not see the section that discusses pop-ups specifically. Furthermore, the document is shown only after users press Yes to install Claria; by the time users see this document, they can’t cancel the Claria installation. So this subsequent text cannot satisfy the requirement that disclosure occur "prior to a consumer installing software" (emphasis added).

Claria may try to defend its installations by noting its plan to move away from popups, in favor of ads embedded within partner web sites. But the Claria software I tested — the result of the installation shown and discussed above — still showed pop-ups, including a popup delivered mere minutes after I finished installation. These pop-ups are a material effect, under Freeman’s own statement of FTC rules. So whatever Claria’s future plans, Claria’s current pop-ups should be disclosed as such.

Some advertisers apparently stand ready to defend their use of advertising systems like Claria’s, and Claria counts as customers some of the country’s largest advertisers. But advertisers should demand better. If advertisers are prepared to show their ads in pop-ups, let them first obtain user consent — not vague consent to "ads," but specific consent to "pop-ups." Until Claria improves its installation procedures to provide this information, users who run Claria software can’t reasonably be claimed to know what they were getting into.

Claria Shows Ads Through Exploit-Delivered Popups

Seeking to clean up its image, Claria has tried to distance itself from competing "adware" vendors — hiring a privacy officer, filing comments with the FTC, even setting up an anti-spyware site. It’s no surprise that Claria wants little to do with other vendors in this space: Other vendors’ entirely nonconsensual installations (1, 2, 3) are a magnet for criticism. These vendors even undercut Claria’s pricing — showing ads for as little as $0.015 per display, where Claria demands a minimum payment of $25,000 per ad campaign.

But despite Claria’s dislike of "spyware" vendors who install advertising software without any notion of user consent, Claria funds and supports such vendors in at least two distinct ways. First, Claria pays spyware vendors to show Claria’s own ads through their popups — thereby recruiting more users to install Claria’s advertising software. Second, Claria buys traffic from spyware vendors and uses this traffic to show ads for Claria’s advertiser clients — including merchants as reputable as Amazon.

So even as Claria reforms its own practices — improving its installation methods and scaling back its controversial popups — Claria is buying ads from others whose practices are far inferior.

Soliciting Installations through Spyware-Delivered Popups

At bottom-left, a Claria screensaver ad promoted by a Venus123 popup. The Venus123 popup was opened by spyware, which had become installed on a test PC without consent. The Venus123 popup is so large that it entirely covers the test PC's Start Menu and Taskbar.At bottom-left, a Claria screensaver ad shown within a Venus123 popup. The Venus123 popup was opened by ContextPlus, which had become installed on a test PC via a security exploit, without my consent. The Venus123 popup is so large that it entirely covers the test PC’s Start Menu and Taskbar.

(promoting installation of Claria "adware")
money viewers
(an ad network)
money viewers
money viewers
(an ad network)
money viewers
money viewers
(spyware installed without consent)

The money trail — how funds flow from Claria to ad networks to spyware vendors (here, ContextPlus).

I have posted a series of pieces critiquing Claria’s installation methods — showing installations at kids sites, in tricky bundles, with substantively unreasonable license agreements. I haven’t recently seen the fake-user-interface Claria ads I wrote about previously — ads which encouraged users to install Claria by mimicking distinctive Windows dialog box formatting. But I am seeing Claria’s ads embedded within popups delivered by spyware — that is, delivered by advertising software installed on my test PC without my consent.

Consider the screenshot at right, showing the site with a Claria screensaver ad at bottom-left. This venus123 ad was delivered to my test PC via ContextPlus spyware, which had become installed without my consent. ContextPlus sent traffic to which sent traffic to Then embedded an ad from, which in turn send traffic to, which embedded an ad from, which finally sent the traffic on to Claria’s server.

This ContextPlus-Claria ad display reflects an unusually lengthy series of relationships — summarized in the diagram at right. But the net effect is that Claria makes payments that ultimately flow back to ContextPlus — thereby funding spyware installed without consent. A partial URL log follows below, and I also retained a full packet log.………………;c……………

A Claria installation obtained through this ad may or may not be "consensual." To reach a conclusion, we’d have to look at what follows when users click the ad — what they’re told about the advertising, privacy, and other relevant effects of installing Claria’s software. (Perhaps I’ll give these ads a close reading in the future, as I previously did for Claria’s fake-user-interface banner ads at kids sites.) But whether or not users ultimately consent to install Claria’s software, it’s troubling to see Claria using its purchasing power to support spyware installed without user consent.

Showing Advertisers’ BehaviorLink Ads through Spyware-Delivered Popups

An Amazon ad served through Claria BehaviorLink. The ad appears within, a site which was opened in a popup by KVM Media, which had become installed on my test PC via a security exploit, without my consent.An Amazon ad served through Claria BehaviorLink within a popup from The popup was opened by KVM Media, which had become installed on my test PC via a security exploit, without my consent.

(and other BehaviorLink advertisers)
money viewers
Claria BehaviorLink
money viewers
(and other sites buying traffic from spyware vendors)
money viewers
KVM Media
(spyware installed without consent)

The money trail — how funds flow from advertisers (here, Amazon) to spyware vendors, via Claria’s BehaviorLink service.

Claria’s funding of spyware (installed without consent) extends beyond Claria’s methods of obtaining new users for its software. Claria also purchases spyware-originated traffic on behalf of its advertiser customers.

In February 2005, Claria announced its new BehaviorLink advertising network. Unlike the controversial pop-ups of Claria’s GAIN — which have brought litigation from web publishers unhappy to see their sites covered by competitors’ popups — BehaviorLink will show ads within publishers’ sites, paying those publishers a share of Claria’s revenue. Viewed in the most favorable light, BehaviorLink would fund free software users want and would help support the sites users request — a winning offer for both users and web sites, Claria claims.

Is the truth as rosy as Claria’s promises? On some level it’s hard to know: Claria’s BehaviorLink says the service is in a "pilot," and so far we’ve heard little from participating advertisers and publishers. Perhaps it’s too soon to say how well BehaviorLink will work.

But in my initial examination of BehaviorLink traffic, I see serious cause for concern. In particular, I have found that Claria is buying BehaviorLink ad inventory from web sites that receive traffic directly from some of the most notorious spyware, including spyware installed on users’ computers without notice or consent.

Consider the example at right. buys traffic from KVM Media, which I have repeatedly observed install without notice or consent. So as users browse the web, KVM opens popups of But, which in turns redirects users to Claria’s BehaviorLink. BehaviorLink them shows an ad from one of its partners. The example below at right shows an Amazon ad placed through BehaviorLink, arriving in exactly this way. See also a screenshot of the result of activating the View-Source menu command in the Savings-card popup. Below is a partial URL log showing traffic leading to the ad and (in the final entry) the result of clicking on the ad.…………

Note that this popup appeared on a PC without BehaviorLink (or any other Claria software) installed. BehaviorLink’s web servers selected the Amazon ad randomly or on the basis of my other browsing on this test PC.

Claria’s Spyware-Delivered Advertising in Context

Claria’s own comments with the FTC concede that "spyware" is "illegal" under existing law to the extent that such software "is installed [on a consumer’s computer] without the consent of the consumer." I agree. So Claria must be disheartened to find its ads and its clients’ ads shown through precisely this concededly-illegal software. I doubt that Claria intended to buy spyware-delivered advertising traffic. But by buying the cheapest available advertising space, Claria invited this result. Indeed, Claria’s BehaviorLink business model is premised on buying low-quality ads. Claria’s Scott Eagle told the New York Times in February: "We’ll take ad inventory that costs 50 or 75 cents, buy it in bulk, and turn it into gold by targeting $6 or $15 precision ads there. We’ll be the alchemists." (cached copy)

To date, BehaviorLink has received strikingly positive press coverage. The media has largely accepted Claria’s promises — advertising software installed because users actually want it (not because they were tricked into accepting it, see above), and ads shown within high-quality partner web sites (not spyware-delivered popups). On the strength of these promises, it seems that Claria has been able to recruit remarkably high-quality advertisers like Amazon — advertisers who would not want to be associated with Claria’s traditional pop-ups.

My observations lead me to challenge these favorable assumptions about BehaviorLink. I still doubt whether users will install Claria’s software if Claria fully discloses the consequences of doing so (especially the effects on privacy). And the KVM Media example above shows BehaviorLink’s dependence on the quality of sites showing BehaviorLink ads. If Claria buys traffic from spyware vendors, directly or indirectly, then BehaviorLink ads get placed in spyware-delivered popups, not in web sites users actually want to visit. Then BehaviorLink ends up funding spyware, not funding the web sites users request.

Avoiding spyware-sourced traffic will require exceptional diligence on Claria’s part — inevitably driving up costs and reducing the profit margins Scott Eagle touted to the Times. I already have several more examples of BehaviorLink ads delivered in popups from exploit-installed spyware, and I’ll be watching for more.

Of course Claria is not the only network facing the problem of spyware-delivered ads. In May I examined more than 88,000 ads then served by 180solutions, finding that literally thousands flowed to or through major ad networks such as aQuantive’s AtlasDMT. These bogus syndication relationships remain widespread, as to popups served by 180solutions and numerous others. I’ve written a series of crawlers and robots to help me assess these problems — identifying which ad networks are involved, and identifying specific ad URLs that are affiliated with spyware vendors. But it’s a remarkably deep problem: Ads are passed from one ad network to another in ways that tend to confuse even my smartest crawlers. And ad networks have little incentive to investigate or stop these practices: They can only lose revenues by prohibiting such ads, so most networks seem to prefer to look the other way.

For now, spyware-delivered popups continue to promote many of the world’s leading merchants — including, thanks to Claria’s BehaviorLink,

Video: Installed through Security Holes

My last few posts have all covered spyware revenue sources (e.g. major advertisers, pay-per-click ads, and affiliate networks). But I always come back to poor installation practices as the core of the spyware problem. And nonconsensual installations continue to benefit surprisingly large vendors. Today’s focus:

Introduction to provides a proprietary domain name system that allows it to sell nonstandard domain names to advertisers. These proprietary domains are resolved through’s own servers, so these domains are accessible only to users whose ISPs have chosen to support (few have), or to users with’s client software installed on their PCs.

Despite major funding from Idealab, hasn’t made a lot of friends. When first announced its navigation DNS experts criticized for breaking the namespace: In a world, not all computers can reach all domain names. Internetnews called an "end-run around ICANN," and Internet Society staff worried of causing "address collisions" by creating new domains that already exist elsewhere.

Facing so much criticism, understandably sought to improve its image. But rather than changing its unpopular practices, instead tried to silence its critics. In 2003, sued Lavasoft, claiming false advertising and trade libel when Lavasoft detected’s software and offered users an easy way to remove it. This wasn’t a clear win for Some of its claims were dismissed under anti-SLAPP rules, and in January 2005 voluntarily dismissed its pending appeals. Then again, Lavasoft’s August 2004 change log reports removing signatures for — suggesting that Lavasoft changed its classification of to avoid further litigation. My Threats Against Spyware Critics table also reports threats against CounterExploitation.’s Installation Practices — And an Example Nonconsensual Installation

A partial listing of programs installed via the Pacimedia exploit. A partial listing of programs installed via the Pacimedia exploit.

The Pacimedia exploit's first screen. Notice no disclosure of specific programs to be installed.
The Pacimedia exploit’s first screen. Notice no disclosure of specific programs to be installed. Notice no terms or conditions actually provided. Installation proceeds if a user presses "close this window" — without requiring that the user affirmatively indicate consent.

Another misleading install -- disclosed via a one-word on-screen description ("") without any explanation of function, purpose, or effect. Finding the license agreement requires scrolling past 60+ pages of other vendors' licenses in the narrow box at right. Another misleading install — disclosed via a one-word on-screen description ("") without any explanation of function, purpose, or effect. Finding the license agreement requires scrolling past 60+ pages of other vendors’ licenses in the narrow box at right. finds itself little liked by experts on Internet infrastructure and security. But where are users in this mess? I’ve never spoken with a user who actually wanted, but I’ve looked at plenty of massively-infected computers with installed. So I’ve long suspected nonconsensual, improper, or overly aggressive installations of software.

My suspicions have recently been borne out, because I have repeatedly observed installed via security hole exploits. See this video, made on October 2 in my testing lab. From 0:00 to 0:55, I browse an ordinary web site, At 1:07, my computer receives a security exploit — code from Pacimedia syndicated into 4w-wrestling via the ad network. Nine minutes later, Pacimedia installed onto my test machine. See video at 10:30-10:45. See also the top screenshot at right, showing the folder (among others) newly added to my Program Files listing.

Did the Pacimedia installer get user consent to install Absolutely not. The Pacimedia exploit did show a screen (second image at right), in which it described software "available to be installed." But nowhere did Pacimedia disclose what programs would be installed; Pacimedia called the software "a free browser enhancement" but gave no names of specific programs or functions. Pacimedia didn’t even link to a separate license, listing, or other document to explain what programs would be installed. Instead, Pacimedia’s installer oddly says users "agree to the terms and conditions stated here" — but neither states nor links to any terms or conditions.

As it turns out, unchecking the mysterious unlabeled checkbox would have prevented the installation of Pacimedia and its bundled programs. But a user cannot be said to have "agreed" to receive (or other software) merely by failing to uncheck a box. And pressing a button labeled "close this window" does not grant consent to install numerous advertising programs.

Of course this isn’t’s only sneaky installation. This spring I looked at eDonkey, which encourages users to install via a pre-checked checkbox, giving’s name and icon, but offering no description of’s effects. Even if a user locates the license — by scrolling through 60+ on-screen pages of other vendors’ licenses — the license still doesn’t explain what does or why a user might (or might not) want it. Such a user cannot reasonably be claimed to have "agreed" to run software.

I’ve also seen in big bundles with other P2P programs, screensavers, and similar. I retain detailed evidence on file. See also Eric Howes’ analysis of as installed by the Good Luck Bear desktop theme — again lacking any explanation of what does.

In its demand letters (e.g. pages 3-4 of its letter to CounterExploitation), has claimed always to "provide[] very detailed download disclosures to all potential users" and to install only with users’ "explicit consent." These are laudable goals, but they’re not just not achieved by’s actual practices.

So faces a product users don’t want; an Internet community that doesn’t like its core business or their installation tactics; and clear proof of its software installed without user consent. Yet paradoxically some anti-spyware vendors still don’t detect or help users remove software. See Eric Howes’ recent State of Detections — finding that Webroot, Spyware Doctor, and Ad-Aware all fail even to detect, while Microsoft recommends ignoring and Spybot ignores by default.

The Rest of Pacimedia’s Bundle

A 180solutions stub installer also shown during the course of the Pacimedia/ installation. Paradoxically, 180solutions installs even if users decline the installation in the stub. A 180solutions stub installer also shown during the course of the Pacimedia/ installation. Paradoxically, 180solutions installs even if users decline the installation in the stub. isn’t all that Pacimedia installs. In my testing, I saw programs installed from ConsumerAlertSystem, ContextPlus, eXact Advertising, Integrated Search Technologies, MediaAccess, Powerscan, SearchAccuracy, ShopAtHomeSelect, Sidefind, SurfSidekick, and YourSiteBar. All are shown in my installation video.

Pacimedia also installed 180 — despite my specific refusal to grant consent when asked. In the video at 7:09, 180 showed a stub installer popup, seeking user consent to install. (See screenshot at right.) I specifically declined 180’s offer. But a mere twelve minutes later, in the video at 19:18, a full copy of 180solutions nonetheless arrived on my test PC. So much for 180’s vaunted new "safe and secure" installation methods: Despite 180’s claims, it’s clear that their software still arrives without consent.

My video also shows the detrimental effects of these many added programs on my test machine: Midway through testing, I couldn’t even load Internet Explorer. Typical users would find it difficult to recover from such a large installation — their computers too badly encumbered even to download an anti-spyware program to begin to clean up the mess.

Though Pacimedia’s installation bundle changes over time, it’s striking how long Pacimedia has continued practices substantially matching what I saw this week. In testing of April 4, 2005, I received the same exploit and same dialog box shown above — even the same false claim that "you agree to the terms and conditions stated here," with no conditions actually stated. Throughout this period, Pacimedia has received traffic through major ad networks (, as well as from Mamma Media (Nasdaq: MAMA)), has installed adware from large vendors including 180 and eXact (along with others, often including Direct Revenue), and has simultaneously shown a misleading ActiveX (see separate write-up). It’s hard to defend any of these practices. Yet somehow Pacimedia has continued apace for 6+ months.

For those interested in the technical details of Pacimedia’s security exploit: Pacimedia serves up a page with two IFRAMEs, one of them a reference to a doubly-encoded JavaScript (JScript.Encode followed by Unicode encoding). After decoding, inspection of that page reveals its use of an IE security vulnerability (discovered March 2004), allowing the execution of arbitrary code on a user’s PC. In particular, Pacimedia’s second IFRAME references a CHM, via syntax msits:mhtml:file://C:foo.mht! — telling IE to load the MHT file (Microsoft "web archive" format) at cfoo.mht, but if that file doesn’t exist (as it predictably does not), then to load instead. (.CHM is a compiled help file, a format used by recent Windows help.) IE follows these instructions — ultimately loading and running the code within track31.chm. In this way, Pacimedia’s code obtains full control over users’ computers, despite users never granting consent. This vulnerability was cured in Microsoft patches posted in 2004, but empirical analysis of infected PCs shows that many PCs remain unpatched and vulnerable.

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,, 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, 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 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 (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 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, 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 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,, 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.

What Passes for “Consent” at 180solutions

180solutions today announced its plan to show its users "notification" popups describing some of 180’s practices — thereby, in 180’s view, obtaining users’ "informed consent." In principle, a re-opt-in might let 180 obtain users’ consent even where initial installations had somehow failed to do so. But 180’s notification message is so flawed and so duplicitous that it can’t offer the legitimacy 180 purportedly seeks. For one, 180’s notification screen makes numerous false statements. Also, 180’s notification is presented in a way that fails to obtain any notion of "consent." Meanwhile, even 180’s new installs don’t obtain meaningful informed consent.

A Close Look at 180’s "Notifications"

180 Notification Screenshot180 Notification Screenshot

A reporter yesterday sent me a screenshot of 180’s planned notification. I see at least seven problems with the screen’s text:

1. 180’s notification screen fails to affirmatively state what 180 does — its popups or its privacy effects. 180’s first two sentences disclose that something called "180search Assistant" is installed, and that it will show "ads." But nowhere does 180 disclose that the ads appear in popups — an advertising format known to be particularly objectionable, and therefore particularly important to bring to users’ attention if users are to offer genuine consent. In addition, nowhere does 180 disclose the important privacy effects of installing 180 software — that 180 will track what web sites users visit, and send much of this information to its servers. The importance of these omissions can’t be overstated: If 180 fails to disclose what users are purportedly accepting, no valid "consent" can result.

2. 180 claims to "giv[e] you free access to search tools, software and entertainment sites." This claim is false, in that for many users 180 provides no such thing. Consider a user who receives 180 software without notice or consent. 180 might allow access to special entertainment sites that are otherwise unavailable. But this ability is of no benefit if users don’t know they have 180, didn’t ask for 180, aren’t told what special sites they can access, and in any event don’t want to access such sites.

3. 180 claims to show "approximately 2-3 highly targeted ads per day." This claim is false, in that many users will receive many more ads per day. Perhaps an average user gets only a few ads per day, when averaging includes all the users who don’t use their PCs on many days, or who don’t use their web browsers. But in even limited web browsing, I consistently receive far more than three 180 ads per day.

4. 180 inexplicably claims that "user consent is required before 180search Assistant can be installed." This claim is absolutely false. 180 is often installed without any consent at all. See videos on my site (1, 2, 3) (dozens more on file). 180’s own staff have repeatedly admitted that nonconsensual installations occur (1, 2, 3, 4). After these many admissions, I don’t understand how 180 can now argue that users have "consent[ed]" to its installation. Indeed, the entire premise of 180’s re-notification program is to make up for prior nonconsensual installations!

5. 180 claims that "all 180search Assistant ads are labeled…" This is false. As 180 staff have previously admitted, advertisements with redirects erase 180’s ad labeling.

6. 180 claims that "the user must be 18 or over to download." Again, false. In fact, 180 software is widely offered on kids sites, where users are unlikely to be over 18. (Example.) Some 180’s installations mention a requirement of user age, but this provision is typically exceptionally hard to find. For example, in one screensaver I tested today, the user-age provision was on page 18 of 180’s license, in the next-to-last paragraph, captioned "Miscellaneous." (Screenshot.)

7. 180 concludes by claiming that "You can easily remove the 180search Assistant … using ‘Add or Remove Programs’" False. The removal isn’t "easy," for at least two reasons.

i. Finding 180 is surprisingly difficult. 180 often places its entry in tricky locations within the alphabetical Add/Remove listing — like under "U" for "Uninstall 180search Assistant," rather than a more natural "1" for "180search Assistant." Users cannot reasonably be expected to look under "U" in search of 180’s entry. On a new PC with a short Add/Remove list, users will still typically find 180’s entry. But on a long and crowded Add/Remove list, on a typical heavily-used PC, it’s anything but "easy" to find 180.

ii. 180 discourages removals using various false and misleading statements. See my prior analysis, finding numerous dubious claims in 180’s uninstall procedure, as well as confusing window design that further discourages removal. For example, 180 falsely claims that removing its software "will disable any Zango-based applications" — even when no such applications have been installed.

Combining these factors, 180’s uninstall procedure is not properly characterized as "easy." 180 does know how to make "easy" procedures: When 180’s software is installed with one click (or even with zero!), the procedure is remarkably simple. But 180 has taken affirmative steps to make removal harder.

Problems with 180’s Notification Procedure: Failing to Request or Obtain Consent

180’s press release claims that its new notification screens will "ensure each user … has provided informed consent." I disagree. As I look at 180’s notification text, 180’s notification actually won’t obtain any consent at all.

As a threshold matter, 180’s notifications apparently will be shown in ordinary Internet Explorer popup windows. Seeing these popups, typical users will seek to close them as quickly as possible — finding them irrelevant, unwanted, and annoying. The ordinary IE presentation format is not conducive to obtaining consent. It’s certainly not well-equipped to get the "informed consent" 180 purports to seek.

Most seriously, 180’s notification text does not seek or require any manifestation of user agreement or approval. In fact, 180’s screen doesn’t say anything about consent: It doesn’t require users to click a button to indicate acceptance of 180’s terms; it doesn’t require users to click a button to keep 180 software on their PCs. Rather, 180’s software stays installed unless users figure out how to remove it. Failure to remove 180’s software certainly can’t be claimed to constitute "consent" to keep it installed. So where’s the "consent" in 180’s notifications?

If 180 really wants informed consent, it could do a lot better. Rather than write its notification screens in marketing-speak, full of euphemisms and half-truths, 180 could write its notification in the formal and calm language used in disclosures elsewhere. I’ll even give 180 a few free sentences. First, 180 should accurately describe its software:

"Your computer is running 180solutions advertising software. 180 will track what web sites you visit, and 180 will show you pop-up ads accordingly. On average, users receive several ads per day, but you may receive more or fewer, depending on how often you use your web browser and depending on what web sites you visit."

180 would accompany this text with an image showing a representative pop-up ad.

Next, 180 would proceed to explain how its software got installed, and what users can do to keep it or to remove it:

"180 software may have been installed on your computer with your consent or with consent of another user of your computer. 180 may have become installed without consent. You may elect to keep 180 software on your PC, or you may choose to remove it without penalty."

Finally, 180 would include a one-click button to uninstall its software immediately, along with another button that indicates users’ consent to keep 180 installed.

If 180 included notice of this form — unbiased truthful sentences, that fairly and frankly disclose 180’s true effects — users might be able to make an informed decision to keep 180’s software. But where 180’s "disclosure" is loaded with euphemisms and falsehoods, offering only a convoluted uninstall procedure, it’s hard to say 180 has obtained "informed consent."

180’s New Installation Stubs: Half-Truths and Omissions

180’s press release claims that its new "technology enhancements" will make it "harder" for 180 software to be installed "covert[ly]." Perhaps. But what happened to the standard of "informed consent" (so prominent earlier in 180’s press release)? 180’s change in wording — from "informed consent" to avoiding "covert" installations — may be surprisingly important. I agree that 180’s new installation procedure isn’t covert. But neither does it yield informed consent.

180 stub installer - initial screen - failing to mention that 180's ads are pop-ups, failing to mention privacy effects 180 Stub Installer – Main Screen

180 installer screen covers license agreementInstaller Covers & Obscures License Agreement

180 installer -- second screen if  users initially decline.  Pressing "Resume" causes installation to proceed immediately, without any further opportunity to review 180's license or to decline installation. Secondary Installer Screen – If User Initially Declines

My understanding is that the "enhancement" at issue is a stub installer like that shown at right. 180’s distribution partners currently distribute a full copy of 180 software. But in the future, apparently they’ll only distribute a stub. Currently, 180’s partners are asked to obtain consumer consent for the installation of 180 software; under the new approach, 180 itself will obtain consent. If properly implemented, this approach might prevent many wrongful installations. Unfortunately, I’ve seen little sign that 180 has designed this system in a way that obtains meaningful consent.

Last week I was testing a security hole exploit which installed more than a dozen programs on my test PC without any notice or consent. Among the unrequested screens appearing on my test PC was the image shown at right (top). This first screen apparently seeks my consent to install 180 — but like the 180 notification described in the preceding sections, nowhere does this screen explain 180’s relevant characteristics and effects. The screen mentions "180search Assistant" and "2-3 advertiser referrals" — but nowhere does it mention that 180’s "referrals" are actually pop-up ads. The screen says that referrals will be "based … on … websites you visit," but it fails to disclose that website visit data will also be sent to 180’s servers. So the screen fails to mention the relevant facts users need to know in order to grant informed consent.

180’s stub installer does mention an external license, available via a blue link from within the stub. I clicked the link and received the image shown in the second screen at right. Notice the web browser showing 180’s license — in a small window, requiring eight screens to view in full. Worse, although I had clicked the "Terms and Conditions" link to request the license, 180’s large stub installer still largely covered the license. It was extraordinarily hard to read the license, even when I maximized the license to fill the rest of the screen, because roughly half of each line of text was covered by the stub window. (Notice that the license window is "active" (blue title bar highlighting) while the stub "Setup" window is "inactive" (grey).) This is not a one-time fluke; to the contrary, the stub consistently remains on top of the license (and all other windows), contrary to Windows standards. Savvy users may realize they can move the stub out of the way by dragging its title bar. But the ordinary windows Minimize button is missing from the stub’s window, eliminating the easiest way to hide that screen.

On one test PC, I pressed "Finish" in the stub, and 180 installed immediately.

On another test PC, I mimicked the choice of a user who didn’t want 180. I pressed "Cancel" in the stub, and I was then shown the third screen at right. This window claims that "without [180], [a user] may lose access to free games, music, toolbars, and other downloads." This statement may be accurate as to some installations, but in the security exploit I received last week, I had requested no games, music, toolbars, or other download — so there could be no loss of access in the way the dialog box claimed. This statement was therefore false, as applied to me.

Consider a user who presses "Cancel" in the first screen, but then decides to give 180 a second chance on the strength of the second dialog. When the user presses "Resume" in the second box, the user has not yet accepted 180’s license agreement — probably failing to read it initially (since the user decided to press Cancel, not wanting 180) and certainly failing to accept it. Nonetheless, 180 immediately installs, without offering any further opportunity for a user to access the license or to decline installation. So in 180’s view, the "Resume" button in the second box actually means "I accept the license linked from the prior box but not available on this screen." That’s a tall order — certainly not what the box plainly says, or what typical users will expect to occur if they press Resume.

Here too, 180 could do much better. 180 could provide a clear description of its effects, using ordinary terms ("pop-up ads") users can readily understand. 180 could present its installation request with appropriate branding — colors, logo, font, and other characteristics that match 180’s other marketing material. 180 could present its license in a way users can readily read. And 180 could refuse to install when user consent is at best ambiguous ("resume").

180 is promoting this "stub" installation procedure as a solution to nonconsensual installs. If all 180’s distributors switch to this new installation method, perhaps fewer distributors will be able to infect users in complete silence. But the stub’s tricky text and poor disclosures mean users will still receive 180 software without being fairly told what it is and what it will do to their computers. That’s a far cry from the "informed consent" 180’s press release promises.