Secret programs that turn your computer into a "zombie" controlled remotely without your knowledge. Others that send you annoying pop-up ads or spy on where you've been on the Internet.
They're called Trojan horses, spyware, adware, malware. These programs can quietly embed themselves in your computer when you download a screen saver, a music file, or a game. They can be harder to weed out than dandelions in May.
To a new consumer-protection coalition being launched Wednesday, it's all "badware." And companies that trick users into downloading it "should no longer be able to hide in the shadows of the Internet," says John Palfrey, codirector of the new StopBadware Coalition and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.
The coalition will act like a "neighborhood watch" for the Internet, relying on citizens to report problems, he says. Users will be able to check www.StopBadware.org to see if programs they are thinking about downloading contain badware. The coalition will "name names" of companies that plant badware on computers, and establish a set of guidelines for determining what programs and practices qualify as badware.
Despite efforts to pass antispyware bills in Congress, "I think this [coalition] is an acknowledgment that this is a problem that is not easily solved by traditional legislation," Mr. Palfrey says. "It's been brutal. It's very hard to come up with a law that actually would work and not do more collateral damage than it's worth."
The coalition will be operated by the Berkman Center and the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, with funding from Google, Sun Microsystems, and Lenovo. An advisory board includes Vint Cerf, chief Internet evangelist at Google, and Internet visionary Esther Dyson. Consumer Reports WebWatch, a project of Consumers Union, will serve as an unpaid adviser helping to establish badware guidelines and create outreach programs.
"Our major concern is that consumers either don't know much about spyware and how it works or are unduly worried about the idea of it," says Beau Brendler, director of Consumer Reports WebWatch. In October, WebWatch published a survey showing that about one-third of Internet users were turning away from the Web - shopping less, for example - because their trust had been shaken.
StopBadware.org won't advise consumers who think their computers have been compromised or recommend products to combat it. But it might eventually link to free antibadware sources if it felt they were of high quality, Palfrey says.
Computer crime in general, including viruses, spyware, and computer theft, costs American businesses a whopping $67.2 billion a year, according to a report earlier this month from the FBI.