The Anti-Spyware Coalition (ASC), an alliance of technology companies and public interest groups, has drafted a uniform definition of "spyware."
The ASC, which includes some of the largest software developers, technology companies and anti-spyware companies working alongside public interest groups, says that the definition will ultimately help all users understand why some programs on their computers may be identified as unwanted and help them make decisions about removing or blocking those programs.
The ASC is now asking the public for help in refining the draft definitions to meet the needs of the entire Internet community.
A May 2005 survey by the Ponemon Institute found that 85% of frequent Internet users believe that they have had spyware on their computer and of those 86% said that the spyware caused a direct monetary or productivity loss.
Although companies have individually developed numerous effective tools for combating spyware, the overall effort to address the problem has been hampered by a lack of agreement and clarity over how to distinguish good programs from those that raise concerns.
"One of the biggest challenges we've had with spyware has been agreeing on what it is," said Ari Schwartz, Associate Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which has led the work of the group. "The anti-spyware community needs a way to quickly and decisively categorize the new programs spawning at exponential rates across the Internet. The definitions will serve as a foundation for all future efforts to help users make more informed decisions about which programs to keep and which to delete."
Since a big part of the goal in defining spyware is to make the practices of anti-spyware companies more transparent, the ASC has also outlined common procedures for dispute resolution for vendors who believe their software has been unfairly flagged by an anti-spyware company.
The ASC describes "spyware and other potentially unwanted technologies," as those that "impair users' control over material changes that affect their user experience, privacy, or system security; use of their system resources, including what programs are installed on their computers; or collection, use, and distribution of their personal or otherwise sensitive information." ASC members agree that this accurately characterizes the practices of concern at the core of the spyware debate.
The coalition has drafted an extensive glossary of terms like "adware," "port scanner," "screen scraper," and others commonly associated with unwanted programs. That glossary, along with a list of tips intended to help computer users both avoid downloading unwanted programs and defend themselves against malicious spyware already on their computers, is available at the ASC's web site.
The ASC will hold a public comment period on the draft definitions through 12 August 2005. The final document will be the cornerstone of a more sophisticated approach to dealing with an increasingly sophisticated problem.
Current members of the Coalition include: Aluria; AOL; Computer Associates; EarthLink; HP; Lavasoft; McAfee Inc.; Microsoft; PC Tools; Safer-Networking Ltd.; Symantec; Tenebril; Trend Micro; Webroot Software; Yahoo! Inc.; Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at Boalt Hall School of Law, UC Berkeley; the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic; and the Cyber Security Industry Alliance. The Coalition has also consulted with the National Consumer Law Center and Consumers Union.