Sears Exposes Customer Purchase History in Violation of Its Privacy Policy

Want to know what a given customer has purchased from Sears? It’s surprisingly easy to find out. Here’s the procedure:

1) Go to the Sears “Manage My Home” site, . Create an account and sign in. Screenshot.

2) On the Home menu, choose Home Profile. In the Search Purchase History section, choose Find Your Products. Screenshot.

3) Enter the name, phone number, and street address of the customer whose purchases you wish to view. Press Find Products. Screenshot.

Sears then displays all purchases its database associates with the specific customer — typically major appliances and other large purchases. See examples from Washington, DC, Brookline, Massachusetts, and Lincoln, Massachusetts.

The look-up form. Full form requires first name, last name, phone number, and address, but nothing more.
The purchase listing.  Typically provides specific product, purchase date, warranty, and manuals.
The information required to retrieve a customer’s purchase history   A customer’s purchase history – showing specific items and purchase dates

Sears Fails to Protect Customer Information

Sears offers no security whatsoever to prevent a ManageMyHome user from retrieving another person’s purchase history by entering that person’s name, phone number, and address.

To verify a user’s identity, Sears could require information known only to the customer who actually made the prior purchase. For example, Sears could require a code printed on the customer’s receipt, a loyalty card number, the date of purchase, or a portion of the user’s credit card number. But Sears does nothing of the kind. Instead, Sears only requests name, phone number, and address — all information available in any White Pages phone book.

Neither does Sears even include any special instructions or obligations in its signup agreement with users: The ManageMyHome Terms of Use say nothing about what information users may access. Indeed, while Sears includes a small-type link to its Terms of Use, Sears never asks users to affirmatively accept the Terms.

These Disclosures Are Contrary to Sears’s Explicit Promises

Sears violates its privacy policy when it discloses users’ purchases to the general public. The Sears Customer Information Privacy Policy lists specific circumstances in which Sears may share customer information. These circumstances are relatively broad — allowing Sears to share customer data “with members of the Sears family of businesses … to provide … promotional offers that we believe will be of interest.” Disclosures are also permitted “to provide [users] with products or services that [they] have requested,” to “trusted service providers that need access to your information to provide operational or other support services,” to credit bureaus, and to regulatory authorities and law enforcement. But none of these provisions grants Sears the right to share users’ purchases with the general public.

Sears may argue that its web site privacy policy only applies to users’ online purchases, and does not govern purchases made in retail stores. Perhaps. But I doubt in-store customers expect their friends, neighbors, and the general public to be able to find out what they bought. I’m still trying to determine what privacy (if any) Sears promises its in-store customers.

Sears’s Privacy Breach in Context

Sears’s exposure of customer purchase history fits within a long history of unintended web site disclosures. For example, in October 2000 I showed that’s return system was revealing customer names, addresses, and phone numbers at publicly-available URLs. But Sears’s disclosure is more troubling: Sears discloses the specific products users purchased. Sears’s disclosures apply to all users, not just those who return products. And Sears’s disclosures come some 7+ years after’s breach — a period of great advance in online security.

The combination of data Sears provides could open the door to serious harms to Sears customers. ManageMyHome reports the specific products customers purchased, as well as the dates of each such purchase. With this information, a miscreant could approach a customer and pretend to be a Sears representative. Consider: “Your washing machine was recalled, and I need to install a new motor.” Or, “I’m here to provide the free one-year check-up on your dishwasher.”

Assessing Sears’s IT Strategy

The ManageMyHome site offers some useful services: Consolidated information about dates of purchase, clear listing of warranty status, and easy links to product manuals. Sears touted these benefits in its recent coverage of ManageMyHome.

But as soon as Sears resolved to provide online access to customers’ purchase histories, Sears staff should have recognized the need to determine which users are truly authorized to see this information. Sears’s failure to effecitvely authenticate users is therefore puzzling. Did Sears staff fail to notice the problem? Decide to ignore it when they couldn’t devise an easy solution to protect users’ purchase histories? Resolve to argue that purchase history merits no better protection than the current system provides?

Combining this privacy breach with Sears’s poorly-disclosed installation of ComScore tracking software, it appears that Sears is not effectively protecting its users’ and customers’ privacy. Perhaps that’s no surprise in light of Sears’s recent financial distress — a 99% drop in profits in third quarter 2007, compared with the third quarter of 2006. But users need not accept excuses for Sears’s lackadaisical treatment of their private information. No matter the company’s financial standing, Sears ought to comply with its stated privacy policy and treat user information with the care users rightly expect.

Sears’s Response

I wrote to Sears ManageMyHome via the addresses on their Contact Us page. To their credit, they responded quickly (less than ninety minutes). However, their reply does not address the seriousness of this situation. Their reply follows:

“We appreciate that you have a security concern. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments with us. We appreciate hearing feedback from our customers, and will pass this information to the appropriate area to research.”

Update (January 4, 5pm): Sears has disabled the search feature described above. Attempts to retrieve a purchase history now yield the message “We’re sorry, this feature is currently disabled.”

Thanks to an anonymous contributor, using pseudonym Heather H, for the tip that led to this article.

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.

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.

More on Google’s Role: Syndicated Ads Shown Through Ill-Gotten Third-Party Toolbars

I’ve previously written about two different ways that Google gets involved in distributing and funding spyware: Allowing Blogspot to be used to foist spyware through tricky ActiveX popups and paying fees to AdSense sites who in turn buy pop-ups through 180solutions (such that revenue ultimately flows from advertiser to Google to AdSense site to 180solutions).

Many of Blogspot’s ActiveX popups have disappeared since my February article, and Google promises to put a check on AdSense popups too. But Google’s role goes much further: Through syndication relationships, Google provides ads to multiple web toolbar operators, including to toolbars installed on users’ PCs without notice or consent. Google pays these toolbar companies for the ads they show — thereby supporting and funding their operations.

Google’s Rules and Policies

Google repeatedly tells its advertisers that their ads will appear only on Google’s “high-quality” partner sites.

What does “high-quality” mean? Google doesn’t say. But last year Google published a set of “Software Principles” for advertising programs — calling for improved notice and consent before advertising software becomes installed. A basic notion of “high-quality” sites is that they don’t solicit traffic through software violating Google’s Software Principles, and that they also don’t make or distribute such software. My sense is that an advertising channel cannot be considered “high-quality” if it is predicated on installing software onto users’ PCs without their consent or without their informed consent.

Ask Jeeves and Its Ill-Gotten Toolbars

I’ve previously shown that Ask Jeeves’ toolbars sometimes install without asking for permission (additional videos on file). Other Jeeves toolbars install in effective stealth or otherwise without informed consent. Some examples:

  • The AJ toolbar bundled with the iMesh P2P program is disclosed only at page 27 of iMesh’s 56 page license. Users who manage to locate this paragraph are likely to face some difficulty in understanding it; the text largely uses euphemisms in place of the word “toolbar” to describe AJ’s software. (Until recently, the license didn’t use the word “toolbar” at all.) See also analysis by SearchEngineWatch.
  • Kazaa has long bundled AJ’s MySearch toolbar (though a recent revision to Kazaa seems to have replaced it with a competing toolbar). Historically, AJ’s inclusion has been prominently disclosed in the Kazaa installer. But users wanting to learn more about AJ have had no reasonable way to find details or even to read AJ’s license: Kazaa oddly placed the AJ license agreement at page 32 of a document puzzlingly labeled “Altnet License Agreement” (without mention of AJ).
  • When Ask Jeeves promotes its toolbars in banner advertising, it again fails to obtain the kind of consent that Google seeks. AJ advertises on kids sites, using euphemisms in place of plain language, and showing pictures of smiley faces rather than pictures of its advertising toolbar. AJ’s installation does not affirmatively show a license agreement providing more detailed terms. On 800×600 screens (such as many older PCs), AJ even fails to show a properly-labeled link to a license or to mention the word “toolbar” in on-screen text prior to installation..

So even if a user has an AJ toolbar, the user may not want it, may not know how it arrived, and may not have granted meaningful consent (if any consent at all). These various behaviors seem to constitute multiple violations of Google’s Software Principles — among others, installation without any consent at all, as well as failure to provide appropriate “upfront disclosure.”

    PPC advertisers    
money viewers
Google AdWords
money viewers
Ask Jeeves

How Funds flow from advertisers to Ask Jeeves

Notwithstanding the tricky installation methods used by these Ask Jeeves toolbars, AJ’s revenues ultimately largely come from Google: Enter a search term into an AJ toolbar, and most of the resulting ads are Google AdWords ads. AJ’s recent 10-Q says AJ gets 74% of its total revenues from Google. With AJ’s 2005 Q1 revenue at $94.9 million, Google apparently pays AJ approximately $278 million per year. Fees flow from advertiser to Google to AJ, as shown at right.

Google’s relationship with Ask Jeeves is widely publicized: Google issued a press release announcing its relationship with AJ, and Google’s main AdWords page even shows AJ’s logo. But Google’s statements to advertisers fail to mention the possibility that AJ will send advertisers traffic that was obtained from toolbars installed without proper notice and consent or, in some instances, any notice or consent at all.

Of course, Google’s relationships with toolbar makers doesn’t stop with Ask Jeeves. Google ads end up shown through other distribution channels with even worse installation practices.

How Google Supports IBIS WebSearch

I’ve long watched the IBIS WebSearch toolbar and its troubled installation practices. I’ve often seen IBIS installed through security holes with no notice or consent. (Multiple additional videos on file.) I’ve also posted documentation of IBIS installed in tricky bundles with minimal notice. I’ve even seen IBIS offered in repeated ActiveX popups that tell users “you must click yes to continue” if users initially refuse installation. Other IBIS ActiveX popups offer a defective license link; clicking the license yields no license. (Video proof on file.)

These practices seem to violate almost every one of Google’s Software Principles. Google says to let users decline an unwanted installation, to give users upfront disclosure of major program functions, to clearly disclose changes to browser configuration, and only to come bundled with other programs meeting these rules. But my records show IBIS failing to meet each of these requirements.

 PPC advertisers 
money viewers
   Google AdWords   
money viewers
money viewers
IBIS WebSearch

How Funds flow from advertisers to IBIS WebSearch

Notwithstanding these apparent violations of Google’s Software Principles, IBIS shows many Google ads, seemingly receiving payment for such displays. Run a search in IBIS, and the ads often match Google ads. See screenshot at left. See also a video showing a search conducted through the IBIS WebSearch toolbar, a click on an ad, and the immediate creation of Go2Net and Google cookies. (Note that Google ads typically fill the entire screen of an 800×600 web browser.)

Click on a WebSearch ad, and traffic flows from WebSearch to Go2Net to Google to advertiser. Payment flows in the opposite direction. See diagram at right.

Using a network monitor (“packet sniffer”), I recorded the raw traffic that occurred when I clicked on the Orbitz ad shown above. In particular, my browser retrieved the URLs listed below. See also the full packet log of the associated transmissions, showing the full parameters of all redirects.

Google’s listing of ad partners confirms that Google ads can be shown by InfoSpace, owner of Go2Net. Note that InfoSpace is a publicly-traded company (NASDAQ: INSP).

The example above shows an Orbitz ad being shown by IBIS WebSearch. In my testing, Orbitz often advertises through programs often called spyware. (Examples: Orbitz ads shown by Claria/Gator, eXact Advertising and Hotbar.) But because IBIS WebSearch syndicates and shows many Google ads for many keywords, IBIS shows ads even for advertisers who otherwise refuse to do business with spyware firms. Indeed, thanks to syndication from Google, IBIS even shows (and receives payment for showing) ads from firms that have filed suit against makers of such software. For example, I have captured proof of IBIS showing Google AdWords ads from the Hertz, LL Bean, and the New York Times, each of which has taken a stand against unwanted advertising software by suing Claria.

Enforcement Challenges

Google’s Software Principles document concludes by noting that “Responsible … advertisers can work to prevent [undesirable software] by avoiding these types of business relationships [those violating the principles set out above], even if … through intermediaries.” This is surely good advice. But Google’s far-reaching relationships with Ask Jeeves, IBIS, and others indicate that Google’s actions fall short of Google’s own recommendations to others.

Most of Google’s AdWords partners are probably highly trustworthy — unlikely to show ads except in the ways that Google intends and permits. But where Google’s partners have partners of their own (as InfoSpace/Go2Net does in WebSearch), enforcement is likely to be more difficult and accountability lacking. Google could eliminate this problem by prohibiting its partners from syndicating Google ads on to further partners of their own — though such a rule would narrow the network showing Google sites and thereby reduce Google’s revenues. Google’s existing partners may also have contractual rights to distribute Google ads to partners; AJ’s 10-Q comments that AJ “display[s] paid listings from Google on … many of the third-party sites in our network” (page 18).

My testing of Go2Net/WebSearch was made particularly difficult by the fact that the Google ads at issue apparently occur only on nights and weekends. During the business day, I have observed that WebSearch generally shows ads from other sources, not from Google. This type of change tends to undermine and confuse casual efforts at testing and enforcement.

Tough enforcement is particularly difficult due to the large amount of money at issue. Ask Jeeves’ relationship with Google has grown to hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Yet my documentation of AJ’s installation practices demonstrates that some AJ traffic to Google comes from AJ toolbars installed without consent or installed without consent that meets Google’s standards. With huge money on the line, will Google terminate its relationship with AJ, as its Principles seem to require (“avoid… these types of business relationships”)? The wrongful installations cannot immediately be undone — it’s hard (though probably not impossible) to determine exactly which AJ toolbar installations lacked consent or lacked the kind of consent Google calls for. But it seems clear that AJ’s practices don’t live up to Google’s standards. What will Google do now?

New Series on Spyware Installation Methods

So-called “adware” companies say nonconsensual installations of their programs are just an “urban legend.” (See section 7 of 180’s claims in a recent interview.) But when I talk to users whose computers have become infected, I’m consistently told that they don’t know how they got the unwanted programs, and they say they certainly didn’t consent. How can we understand this divergence? How are users PCs receiving this unwanted software?

My new Spyware Installation Methods sets out a taxonomy of the ways unwanted programs sneak onto users’ computers. Some installations rely on tricking users — for example, showing confusing popups, or claiming or suggesting that an installation is required to view a web site. Others install unwanted software in bundles with programs users actually want — sometimes telling users what they’re getting in fine print midway through long licenses, but sometimes not even including these minimal disclosures. Finally, some spyware sneaks in through security hole exploits — without any user consent at all, thanks to defects in users’ web browsers or other software. (See the security hole video and write-up I posted last fall.)

There’s lots to be done in documenting how unwanted software gets onto users’ PCs. My Installation Methods page indexes my work to date, to the extent it’s posted online. But I have much more documentation still to be posted — for example, scores more videos showing security exploits. I’ll be making additions in the coming months, as I find better ways to present this work clearly and efficiently, and as I find clients or other revenue sources to help support this work. (I’m still looking! Send suggestions.)

Diagram of the steps users must follow in order to attempt to learn what software 3D and BlazeFind will install on their PCs.  Even diligent users ultimately have no way to know in advance what 3D will install on their PCs.Diagram of the steps users must follow in order to attempt to learn what software 3D and BlazeFind will install on their PCs.

Today I’m also starting what I intend to be a series of weekly updates to my site — tentatively entitled “misleading installation of the week.” Sometimes I’ll show massive security hole exploits that render users’ computers nearly useless, but sometimes I’ll post more “ordinary” infections that “merely” show extra ads or send users’ browsing habits to a remote server. At every turn I’ll emphasize the trickery common to most installation methods — the ways that substance (e.g. material omissions, euphemisms, confusing circumstances) and style (e.g. on-screen presentation format, window size and shape, link format) cause users to “accept” software that offers them little or no genuine benefit.

I’m starting this series with an analysis of software from 3D Desktop. 3D’s Flying Icons Screensaver bundles BlazeFind, which in turn bundles 180solutions and half a dozen other programs. To learn what’s included, users must puzzle through a dizzying array of licenses — scroll through one license to find a link to another; scroll through that agreement to find the URLs to others; perfectly retype those URLs; then read each of the resulting licenses. But even if users follow this lengthy procedure, 3D and BlazeFind will ultimately install programs beyond the programs the licenses specifically name. So even diligent users have no way to know in advance what 3D will do to their PCs. Plus, BlazeFind is overzealous in its claims of privacy protection: BlazeFind says the programs it installs don’t track users’ behavior, but my hands-on testing proves otherwise. Details:

3D Desktop’s Misleading Installation Methods

Interestingly, BlazeFind’s license mentions that BlazeFind is a product of CDT, a software distribution company recently purchased by 180solutions. 180 says the CDT acquisition is part of its effort to “clean up” its distribution methods. With practices like these, they certainly have plenty of work ahead. See also a recent Spyware Warrior analysis of other 180 claims and practices in need of correction or improvement.

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.

Video: eBates Installed through Security Holes

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

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

Why the controversy? I see at least two worries:

1) Aggressive software installations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ebates Terms & Conditions Allow Removing Other Programs

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

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

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

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

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

Who Profits from Security Holes? updated November 24, 2004

I’ve written before about unwanted software installed on users’ computers via security holes. For example, in July I mentioned that 180solutions software was being installed through Internet Explorer vulnerabilities. (See also 1, 2, 3) More recently, researchers Andrew Clover and Eric Howes (among others: 1, 2) have described increasing amounts of unwanted software being installed through security holes.

Malware installed through a single security exploit

How bad is this problem? How much junk can get installed on a user’s PC by merely visiting a single site? I set out to see for myself — by visiting a single web page taking advantage of a security hole (in an ordinary fresh copy of Windows XP), and by recording what programs that site caused to be installed on my PC. In the course of my testing, my test PC was brought to a virtual stand-still — with at least 16 distinct programs installed. I was not shown licenses or other installation prompts for any of these programs, and I certainly didn’t consent to their installation on my PC.

In my testing, at least the following programs were installed through the security hole exploit: 180solutions, BlazeFind, BookedSpace, CashBack by BargainBuddy, ClickSpring, CoolWebSearch, DyFuca, Hoost, IBIS Toolbar, ISTbar, Power Scan, SideFind, TIB Browser, WebRebates (a TopMoxie distributor), WinAD, and WindUpdates. (All programs are as detected by Ad-Aware.) I have reason to believe that numerous additional programs were also installed but were not detected by Ad-Aware.

See a video of the installations. The partial screen-shot at left shows some of the new directories created by the security exploit.

Other symptoms of the infection included unwanted toolbars, new desktop icons (including sexually-explicit icons), replacement desktop wallpaper (“warning! you’re in danger! all you do with computer is stored forever in your hard disk … still there and could broke your life!” (s.i.c.)), extra popup ads, nonstandard error pages upon host-not-found and page-not-found error conditions, unrequested additions to my HOSTS file, a new browser home page, and sites added to my browser’s Trusted Sites zone.

I’ve been running similar tests on a daily basis for some time. Not shown in the video and screen-shot above, but installed in some of my other tests: Ebates Moe Money Maker, EliteToolBar, XXXtoolbar, and Your Site Bar.

Installation of 180solutions software through security holes is particularly notable because 180 specifically denies that such installations occur. 180’s “privacy pledge” claims that 180 software is “permission based” and is “programs are only downloaded with user consent and opt-in.” These claims are false as to the installation occuring in the video linked above, and as to other installations I have personally observed. Furthermore, 180’s separate claim of “no hiding” is false when 180 software is installed into nonstandard directories (i.e. into C:Windows rather than a designated folder within Program Files) and when 180 software is installed with a nonstandard name (i.e. sais.exe) rather than a name pertaining to 180’s corporate name or product names.

What’s particularly remarkable about these exploits is that the bad actors here aren’t working for free. Quite the contrary, they’re clearly expecting payment from the makers of the software installed, payments usually calculated on a per-install basis. (For example, see a 2003 message from 180solutions staff offering $0.07 per installation.) By reviewing my network logs, I can see the specific “partner” IDs associated with the installations. If the installers want to get paid, they must have provided accurate payment details (address, bank account number, etc.) to the makers of the programs listed above. So it should be unusually straightforward to track down who’s behind the exploits — just follow the money trail. I’m working on passing on this information to suitable authorities.

Note that the latest version of Internet Explorer, as patched by Windows XP Service Pack 2, is not vulnerable to the installations shown in my video and discussed above.