Spy Wary

Set aside the huge problem of Internet e-mail spam just for a moment, and consider an even more serious cyberintruder: spyware.

Generally speaking, spyware is any computer program designed to infiltrate a computer in order to track a computer user's Internet activities or steal information stored in a computer without the user's knowledge.

Big computermakers like Dell say the spyware onslaught is now the No. 1 problem being dealt with on their technical help lines.

Some spyware, such as programs that secretly record an individual's keystrokes, already are illegal under US wiretap law. But thankfully, the House passed a measure last week that slaps large federal fines on producers whose spyware monitors computer use via the Internet for a host of reasons - from gathering marketing information to capturing credit-card numbers and personal passwords. The bill requires spyware manufacturers to stop the secrecy, and offer a clear choice to consumers whether they want to accept such programs.

In addition to Congressional action, the Federal Trade Commission weighed in on the spyware issue this week. The FTC announced Tuesday that it filed suit against a New Hampshire man who allegedly created a piece of spyware that causes lots of pop-up ads to appear on computer screens and then aggressively promotes a $30 fix to the problem which the spyware itself created.

It's the first time the FTC has sued over spyware, citing a law that prohibits "deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce." These actions (along with states' efforts) should help computer users eventually rid themselves of this cyberpest. Meantime, they should make full use of legitimate spyware blocking programs.

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