Beware of freeware set to bug your PC and you

April 11, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Just say no.

That's what we tell our kids to do when someone offers them drugs. But perhaps we should consider saying it ourselves when someone offers us the computer drug of the new millennium - free software.

Over the past year we've learned that the free software that the kids use to swap MP3 music files over the Internet comes at a price - spyware that tracks our movements across the Web, even when the programs aren't being used, and sometimes after they've been uninstalled.

But those programs are just the tip of the iceberg. Somebody has to pay for all that "free" content out there. Usually it's an advertiser who wants our eyeballs, or a marketer who wants information about us that we'd just as soon keep private. They'll do anything they can to get our attention or learn who we are and what we do. That includes spying on us and sneaking software onto our computers.

"Sometimes I think my PC needs an exorcist," says a colleague who's downloaded a few too many of these freebies. "Any day now, I expect the monitor to start swiveling around and cursing at me."

Yes, it's time to consider saying No. Here are some reasons why:

If you're among the millions who have downloaded the free Kazaa file-trading program since February, you've also unknowingly downloaded bits and pieces of software designed to make your computer a cog in an entirely new, but unannounced peer-to-peer network for the distribution of copy-protected music.

The same software can even take over your PC for use as a number cruncher in third-party projects that require massive computing power.

Brilliant Digital Entertainment, the company that invented the scheme, plans to activate the dormant software in the next few months. It came to light this month when a reporter for CNet's News.com discovered it in a regular SEC filing.

Company officials say they won't take over any PC without the consent of the owner.

However, many users may already have given their "consent" by checking "Yes" boxes that appeared on their screens when they downloaded Kazaa. Many more will undoubtedly click "Yes" out of habit when Brilliant gets around to turning on the sleeping programs.

If you get the chance, maybe you should just say No. Or just get rid of the software entirely.

Several hundred thousand users who downloaded Morpheus, a similar file-sharing program from StreamCast Networks, have received an unannounced bonus in recent months - software that redirects their Web browsers away from shopping sites such as Amazon.com and to shopping sites that pay StreamCast for the privilege.

Just an experiment, the company said. It eventually will become optional.

If your PC was a car, this wouldn't be an experiment, it would be a hijacking.

If you get the chance, just say No.

Do you hate those little animated ads that jump up and down on your screen - obscuring whatever's behind them - when you're unfortunate to hit a Web site that's desperate for advertising revenue?

They're known as "Shoshkeles," named for the daughter of a founder of United Virtualities, the company that created these creatures to make you a captive of the advertiser for a few seconds, at least.

But if Shoshkeles are annoying, they're nothing compared to what the company plans next.

Its newest technology, known as Ooqa Ooqa, will take over the toolbar of your Web browser and turn it into a billboard for whoever's willing to pay for it. It can replace your Forward and Back buttons with buttons that take you to the advertiser's Web site and otherwise change the way your browser works.

Of course, you'll be able to opt out of the hijacking, according to the company. If you get asked, just say No.

You've undoubtedly visited Web sites that pop up a gray "Security" box that asks if you want to download a "plug-in" program the Web site needs to function. The most common is Macromedia's Flash, a legitimate and animation tool.

But you'll be seeing a lot more of these boxes - the ploy has been discovered by advertisers and marketing outfits that want to trick you into downloading software designed to track your Web surfing habits or, once again, turn your PC into a billboard.

In some really nasty cases, porn site operators have used the device to download software that automatically dials expensive 900 numbers.

If you see one of these boxes and you're not 100 percent sure what the program does, just say No.

Do you have the e-mail preview window of Outlook or Outlook Express turned on? Turn it off. Now.

I know it's convenient, and the fancy formatting and graphics that appear in the e-mail may be attractive. But the Outlooks (and Netscape's e-mail client) use Web browser functions to display those fancy messages. That means the cookies, Web bugs, and other tricks that Web sites and advertisers use to track your comings and goings all go to work when that e-mail appears on your screen.

A new trick is the inclusion of a tracking number in the subject line - a favorite device of spammers, who now know exactly who read their message.

You don't have to open an e-mail to activate these spy features - displaying it in the preview window is enough.

I've turned mine off, as much as I liked it, and you should too.

If a message is obviously spam, you can delete it without reading it - or tipping off the spammer that he's made a hit. It's another way to just say No.

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