Spyware: Unethical Business Practice

Sun, 1 Mar 2015

I. Introduction

Advertising has come a long way. With the advent of the internet, it became a big money maker. However, this has lead to a sinister turn of events where advertisers track people's progress across the internet in order to gain insight and make even better ads. To some extent this information is obtained through the use of spyware. It is common for people to be completely unaware that their privacy is being violated.

II. Historical Background and Definitions

Spyware is software that gathers information from someone's computer typically without their knowledge or consent. This software may also be used to make changes to their computer without their consent as well. Spyware is often categorized into four basic categories: system monitoring/key loggers, tracking cookies, adware and malware/trojans.

System monitoring software generally collects data on someone's inputs, often in the form of a key logger that is used to monitor the key strokes that they type. Tracking cookies are used to monitor someone's browsing habits on the internet and is often transmitting the data to an advertiser without permission. Adware is a form of spyware that will either display ads on web pages, or in the form of pop-ups in someone's browser. Adware is often used in conjunction with tracking cookies so that an advertiser can tailor ads specifically to a someone's interest and browsing history. Trojans/malware are typically the most difficult and most malicious software to remove. The malicious purposing of this software often makes it hard to detect since it may be embedded in core operating system files. Malware and trojans may even be used in phishing expeditions to deceive someone into giving up information that could potentially hurt them.

Spyware has also been incorporated in proprietary software packages as a means of letting a company know compatibility boundaries and people's hardware specifications and usage patterns so that the software can be more efficiently developed and improved. This is often mentioned in the license that someone sees during installation, giving people (in theory) a choice of accepting the installation on the computer. However, most spyware is installed without consent or knowledge, sparking a controversy and debate on the legality of this practice. Lenovo was recently found to be doing this. As a result of people's awareness of this ever-growing problem, internet security software and spyware removal tools have become more mainstream.

III. Obtaining personal information without knowledge or consent is theft

Obtaining personal information without knowledge or consent is considered theft by varying ruling governments across the globe. Advertisers and spyware developers should be held accountable. As a general consensus, most countries recognize prosecution against theft and consider many forms of theft a crime. For example, stealing personal information from an individual without their knowledge or allowing consent is considered a crime with in the United States.

The United States government has also progressively considered the implementation of laws to counter spyware abuse. The Internet Spyware Act also known as I-SPY was put to vote in both 2005 and 2007 (H.R. 744 and 1525 respectively) due to many complaints concerning the lack of prosecution and personal defense with malicious software that advertisers had been embedding in online advertisements both on websites and in pop-up form. Although neither of these bills ultimately passed it brought awareness to the public that spyware was being used against people, often without their permission.

Constructivist Theory: Act Utilitarianism

An action is bad if harms someone, the goal is to minimize harm to the most people. Theft is often considered harm and stealing personal information to use against someone is often considered a wrongful action by society. By not allowing spyware to be as prevalent as it has become within recent decades, the harmful actions it can impose on society through theft and malicious action can be minimized or controlled so that consent must be given by those who wish to share their private information.

IV. Many People Worldwide are Opposed to Advertisements and Spam; Spyware Abuse Only Increases Discontent With Advertisements

Web pages have been using ads to offset hosting costs for a long time. Often it is profitable for both the advertising company and the hosting site as a result of people either viewing or clicking on advertisements out of curiosity. As a result, advertising companies may place tracking cookies or other programs to monitor what web pages people have visited and tailor their ads according to what information the tracking cookie provides them. Adware and malware may also initiate programs on someone's computer to generate pop-up ads, resulting in a myriad of web ads that make internet browsing a frustrating experience.

As a result of people's frustration with over-advertising, a small anti-spyware community has developed to rid the internet of spyware and malicious software. One of the most popular programs created by the anti-spyware community is AdBlock Plus. AdBlock Plus originally started out as an extension program for Mozilla's popular Firefox web browser. This extension enabled people to block internet advertisements from showing up on web pages, prevent pop-up advertisements and stop spyware installation. The result of this web browser extension was astronomical, with over 100 million downloads and constant updates to block the latest advertisements. The extension is now offered on several browsers and has made many people aware of the dangers of advertisements.

Constructivist Theory: Kantianism

An action is considered good if it benefits someone; blocking web advertisements in order to prevent harm and making others aware of the harms of malware can create a minimization process that prescribes to duties and guidelines of the first formulation. Since the development of anti-spyware tools and web pages dedicated to educate people on advertisement abuse and the potential malicious intent of adware design, it is beneficial and helps to negate harm for many people.

V. Placing Tracking Cookies and Spyware on an Someone's Computer Without Their Consent May Lead to Further Fraudulent Actions

One major problem with spyware is the malicious software often associated with it. Malware and trojan software can often be damaging and create a causation effect where personal information can be stolen from an individual without their knowledge. Keyloggers have been used by employers to track employee whereabouts when using computers on the job. However, keyloggers can be installed via covert spyware installations. Identity theft, personal information and passwords for sensitive material are often what is stolen when a keylogger is employed for malicious intent.

Within the last decade it has been reported that more personal information has been stolen with the use of spyware than ever before. Identity theft is often one of the most prominent result of personal information being stolen and has become more common as more people enter sensitive information, especially since more things like federal student aid (FAFSA) and tax information (IRS E-file) are often entered on a computer.

Malware can also create re-directing scenarios in someone's web browser in an attempt to steal personal information. For example, malware may create an alert that would prompt someone to enter personal information under the guise of a bank or website that they would frequent. The entered information would be stolen and sent elsewhere typically to be used against them.

Constructivist Theory: Rule Utilitarianism

If harms outweigh benefits of an action, it should be cast aside. With spyware being attached to many advertisements, very few benefits are associated with personal information being stolen through keystroke logging or phishing. Since it only benefits the developers the software used in tracking, it does very little in terms of happiness on society.

VI. Counter-Argument(s)

Web advertisers may claim their use of spyware as economical or even similar to social advertising strategies such as polls or marketing trends. Increased popularity of data tracking in software has also lead to trend setting for programming spyware into free use data such as demos or trial software. More often than not, it is argued that spyware used by reputable advertising sources do so without malicious intent.

In some cases, certain software developers use a form of monitoring in their software as a means of reporting errors and providing interactive feedback as a means to create a patch or create a targeted maintenance structure. Because of the nature of these feedback systems, many people are prompted to agree before installing the software in order to allow the people the option of providing feedback through the use of the monitoring software. Apple's iTunes program is a very popular example of this method of debugging software through a monitoring program.

Another argument for spyware is the efficiency of creating advertisements tailored to an individual audience. In theory, the effectiveness of advertising would be to tailor your advertisement to an audience that holds interest in the area being marketed. Because of this, many forms of analog advertisements were very generalized. The digital age ushered in a new form of advertisement through the means of personalized rendering, which allowed companies to tailor specific web page ads to individuals by the means of viewing a browsed history. This makes advertising for products much more successful than in previous decades of advertising to a general audience. However, one of the means of acquiring the browsing history of an individual would be through the use of a spyware program. Many supporters of spyware would also argue that malicious software is not the intent of most spyware usage. Because of this, it is often assumed that most, if not all spyware is bad or malicious, giving spyware in general a bad name.

Advocates of spyware programs often argue the use of spyware improves the flow of internet traffic to websites that pay advertisement companies to do such. The suggestive nature of a tailored advertisement that was marketed through spyware often has many individuals looking into the company's web page as a form of curiosity or even to bring business to the company itself. Because of the nature of this method, companies who pay for advertising across a series of popular websites would argue the case for spyware use since it benefits them to a indirect degree.

VII. Rebuttal to Counter-Argument(s):

Since companies are looking for ways to further advertise, they should consider alternative approaches to placing potentially dangerous software that could be manipulated to do harm. Although advertisers use this option as an inexpensive way to get their message across it is still considered harmful by many (enough to get the house of representatives involved with legislative action.) To some extent the ideology of directing traffic to websites is also flawed as it has caused programs such as Ad-Block Plus to be extensively used.

VIII. Conclusion

Both the public and advertisers have had a long and relentless struggle for both their privacy and the opportunity to create business through internet advertisements. However, there is a flawed understanding that web advertisers assume that many individuals consent to having their personal information and web browsing data shared with the hopes of creating better business opportunities that extend to the individual level. If it's wrong to take personal information without consent, then why are advertisement agencies allowed to take information gathered without explicit consent? Many of these problems are being countered with the use of ad blocking software and malware removal tools, but legislation has been created with the purpose of protecting internet users. The ultimate consideration is privacy - advertisement agencies need to ask permission before taking people's information.