Spyware goes to parliament

The spyware epidemic has turned the Internet into a nuisance marketing tool, according to the chief information officer (CIO) for Melbourne Health, Mary Wollmering.

Part of her job, she said, is showing users how to get rid of spyware which is a real problem when it comes to bandwidth and storage space. "It is in plague proportions, you can outlaw it, but that is a bit simplistic. Just what is spyware - some call it advertising, some call it direct marketing," Wollmering said.

"End user education would ultimately stop people from loading these icons onto PCs. Education would make a difference but you are just better off clamping down on the firewall to stop it coming in."

Wollmering was responding to news last week that the Australian Democrats is introducing a bill to outlaw spyware which it dubbed an aggressive, marketing-driven tool that exploits personal information.

The bill is due to go before parliament in September. Microsoft Australia claims spyware is a leading cause of PC crashes and Dell stating that 15 percent of all tech calls are spyware related.

The IT manager of raw materials supplier Bronson and Jacobs, Terry Frost, said a spyware bill is equivalent to censorship taking away the right of every person to be exposed to advertising.

"I can understand a bill outlawing spyware targeted at organizations and their employees, so in that respect I have no issue with spyware being outlawed, but as a consumer I sometimes like the pop-ups," Frost said.

"Outside the business environment, outlawing spyware would pose censorship issues as there are currently no bills censoring advertising material, so where would the law go to from there?"

Fuelling the widespread use of spyware is the tech business community.

Graham Connolly, Websense Australia and New Zealand territory manager, said spyware creates a cost to business in terms of helpdesk support issues. The prevalence of the software has more social and professional implications than the previous bugbear, pornography, he said. At the same time, he said, businesses "do everything they can to develop spyware".

"They want to make money and do it by generating marketing statistics on demographics to maximise numbers of people and then pass the information on."

He cited a government agency on the cusp of introducing a solution for spyware, because it was having such a detrimental effect on workload. Graham said the way spyware is designed is to take advantage of users at every level, particularly novices.

"Look at the way something like the 'Bonzi Buddy' was packaged – it was targeted at children and people who like pretty icons on e-mail – those who have not been around a computer long enough to know better and click yes to everything, which then installs more spyware," Graham said.

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