Automotive Mileposts
IS YOUR COMPUTER SPYING ON YOU?
WELCOME TO THE WWW!

Why operating today on the
World Wide Web
is like living in the days of the
Wild, Wild West
An important message from
the Staff of Automotive Mileposts

Today's Internet has opened up a whole new world. Information that once took days to travel across the globe is available instantaneously today. The world seems smaller now, people can simply log on and explore the universe. Information is as close as the click of a mouse. That's what technology has done for us, and we're all better for it. But all good things also seem to have a dark side. Evil that lurks in the shadows--waiting to take advantage of others enjoying the good things that life offers. While this may sound quite sinister, at face value the evildoers would have you believe it is for your own good. That is why operating a Web site today on the World Wide Web is like living in the days of the Wild, Wild West. It's every man for himself it seems, and around every corner is someone waiting to take advantage of you. No? If you don't agree, read on...

Consider this scenario: a friend calls you on the phone to tell you about this great new cable box he just installed. It has the ability to remember your favorite television shows, and will automatically tune them in for you when the TV is on. It keeps track of schedule changes as well, so you never miss your favorite shows. And, if you don't have the TV on, it will automatically record them for you to watch later. Sounds good, doesn't it? But it gets better. The cable box is FREE! That's right - FREE!!

Installation is automatic as well. Just plug it in, and it programs itself. Ahhh, life is good. Now you just have to grab a cold beverage, find a comfy spot to sit, turn on the set, and lose yourself in your favorite TV shows.

Out of all the shows you watch, there's one station in particular that broadcasts the programs you really LOVE. You find that you watch this station more than any of the others, as it seems to really have the best programming. There are commercials, of course. Someone has to pay the bills, right? And strangely, even the commercials on this station seem to be interesting. Your interests, hobbies, and lifestyle are truly represented here.

While watching your favorite station one day, a commercial comes on for a product that you decide would be of benefit for you to own. So, you pick up the telephone to place the order, but before the call connects, a box pops up on the screen that says:

Wait a minute! Put that phone down!
Call this number instead and save an additional
2% on your purchase!


Hey, that's great! Everyone wants to save money, right? You call the number in the box on the screen, place your order, the product arrives, and everything is great. Over the following months, this happens again and again. Man, you really love that cable box! It remembers your favorite shows, and you get discounts on the stuff you buy as well! Everything's great, right?

Not exactly. You see, that favorite station you're so fond of depends on advertising to survive. You don't pay to view it, so the money has to come from somewhere. Normally, when people viewing the station order products that are advertised over the phone, they call a toll free number that identifies that station as the source referring you. But when you installed the new cable box, complete with the convenient on-screen pop-up box--and a new phone number to call to get the discount, you are no longer identified as a viewer of that station. Your referrer becomes that cable box company that gave you the box you enjoy so much. They get the credit for your purchase instead of the station you were watching.

You don't think that's a big deal? Multiply this scenario by thousands or millions of avid viewers, and you find that the station broadcasting the programming isn't making any money. It's all going to the cable box company. That's right--the commissions that the station would normally receive for your purchase are going into the bank account of the cable box company. It's only fair, since the cable box company provided the box for free. This is where the trouble starts. Advertisers think the station isn't performing well for them, so they pull their ads. The station goes off the air due to lack of income. Along with it go your favorite shows.

That cable box that you got for free doesn't do much now, since there's nothing left to watch. All of the smaller local stations are gone. The big networks don't have any competition, so they show whatever they want to, and what airs is whatever makes them the most money. That would consist mostly of infomercials and shopping shows. You know the type. They sell swell collectible Barbie dolls, lots of nick nacks that have to be dusted, whitening products for your teeth, hygiene doo dads, instant tanning creams...you know the type of things they feature.

Now, this would never really happen on television, of course. There are laws that prevent televised broadcasts from being interrupted or altered. The same goes for radio broadcasts. A company couldn't just interrupt what you see or hear and insert their own competing advertisement, even if you agreed to allow this to happen by installing something on your TV or radio.

Think about it: a magazine would never allow someone to take a subscriber's copy out of their mailbox and insert different ads in it before it was delivered to the subscriber. Postal regulations prohibit making alterations to items sent in the mail.

A salesperson from Barnes & Noble (for example) would never be permitted to lurk near the check out counter at Borders, and tell you that if you bought that book at Barnes & Noble instead of at Borders, you'd get an additional percentage off the purchase price...oh, and here's a coupon for you to take to Barnes & Noble to get your discount! It would never happen! They'd be tossed out of the store in an instant!

Yet that's EXACTLY what's happening today on the Internet. You use the Internet for entertainment, education, news...you have favorite sites that address your interests. Those sites are available to you for free, you don't pay to use them. But it costs money to keep those sites online. Where does the money come from to sustain them? It comes from advertising and partnerships that pay the site to display their ads and offers to the people visiting that site. Normally, the messages are targeted to the audience. You won't find ads for wallpaper and blinds on an automotive site very often. But you will likely find ads for car parts, books, magazines, tools, and the like. You might also see ads for computers, ISPs, etc., since you are on the Internet and you are using a computer. There must be some interest or perhaps a need there, correct?

If you take the scenario above, but instead of using a favorite television station as an example, substitute a favorite Web site in its place. Instead of the cable box that is available for free and makes your life so much easier, insert a software program offered online for a free download. It costs money to build cable boxes and software, so where does the money come from to make all this happen? It comes from you, the consumer.

But wait a minute. In the scenario above about the favorite television station, how did the cable box know when to pop up the box on the screen--complete with a new 800 number to call, just as you were about to order something over the phone? AH-HA! There's the catch! When you installed the cable box, you agreed to certain terms in order to use it. Oh, you didn't read through them thoroughly? They were pages and pages long, the print was small, the verbiage was foreign? Well, that doesn't matter. You agreed to those terms by using the box. And one of those terms said you agreed to have your phone line monitored as well as your viewing habits. The company providing the cable box had your permission to sell this information to others. So, when you picked up the phone, the cable box monitored the number you dialed. When it discovered you were calling an advertiser, it popped the box up with its own 800 number so it would get credit for your purchase instead of the television station. Pretty rotten, huh?

The free software downloads do the same thing. Like an alien from outer space, they monitor your online activity, and report back to the mother ship with details of everything you do while online. The mother ship beams this information through the galaxy to other ships. You're being watched, and you don't even know it. Oh, they told you this would happen. Remember? It was buried in paragraph number 38 of the terms you agreed to when you downloaded the software. You know -- it was in the section that said something about "...aggregate information can be disbursed to other partner companies. Terms are subject to change at any time without notice." Basically, they can do whatever they want to do. And you agreed to it.

So, when you go to your favorite Web site and start viewing pages, some software programs will change the banner ads you see. You don't even know it's happening. The ads you're seeing aren't the ads being loaded by the site. They're ads being loaded on top of the site's ads--by the nifty software you downloaded for free to keep track of your user name and passwords! Yes, that's right! The software company has access to your user name and passwords. Nice, huh?

And when you click on an ad, the credit for the click goes to the software company, not the Web site. So the advertiser doesn't think its ads are performing well on the site. But the fact is, if it weren't for the site, you'd likely never see the ad. The software doesn't provide the content that attracts you, it just feeds off of it. Other software programs wait for you to click on a link to another site that might be in partnership with the content site you're visiting. The software checks to see if it has a partnership with that same company, and if so -- VIOLA! -- the link is changed. The tracking code from the site is stripped out, and the software company's code is inserted instead. Again, the site loses the commission if you purchase anything. All of this happens instantly, seamlessly. You don't realize it's happening.

Think there ought to be a law? We do too. But, just as the good old days of the Wild, Wild West didn't always have laws in place to protect people, the World Wide Web doesn't either. It's too new. Technology is moving faster than the elected officials are. And in the meantime, unscrupulous entities are taking advantage of the situation while they can.

So how are they getting away with it? On a technicality that hasn't been addressed by the legal system yet. The software programs are saying that the end user (that's you) voluntarily downloaded their software, fully knowing that these changes would be made to the pages viewed. Of course, you didn't download the software because of the changes made to online ads, you downloaded it to keep track of passwords. The other "features" of the software were bundled together with the password program, so they were just part of the deal.

You get out of life what you put into it. The same goes for the Internet. If you just take and take until there's nothing left to take, the end will come soon. Content sites with free information will cease to exist. They will either have to charge you for admission, or they will go bankrupt and stop operations. Web sites must be profitable now to survive. The days of the big bucks loans for Internet start ups and to provide capital for expenses are over. So, you have to give something back to the sites you enjoy in order for them to survive. You have to do your part to support and sustain them. How? You can support them by purchasing things you'd likely buy anyway through the site. And you must make sure that you haven't downloaded something that will prevent your favorite site from getting credit for your purchases.

In the future, more and more sites will be taking action to prevent programs on user's computers from stealing from them. This may include blocking access to the site to anyone with these programs on their hard drive. It's nothing personal against you, but it's the only solution at this time.

Consider the ultimate price you will pay for not having to remember your passwords, or to get an extra two percent back on purchases. If this type of activity continues, eventually many of the small- to medium-sized content sites might be gone due to lack of funding. The Internet won't be nearly as interesting as it once was without them. Hundreds of thousands of content site owners are banking on the fact that you don't want the Internet to become a wasteland of sites owned only by big companies with their bottom line as their only priority.

Think about this the next time your computer freezes up, or is slow to respond. Many of these software downloads create problems because they don't work well with other programs. They fight for system resources, they slow load times due to the "phone home" processes that happen with each new page accessed. They do not have your best interests in mind. You are being taken advantage of, and you don't even know it!

To download free software that checks for parasites on your computer, please consult these resources:

Microsoft Safety and Security Center - Microsoft Security Essentials is a free program that helps protect your computer against viruses, spyware, and other malware that are security threats. If you think your computer might already be infected, running the Microsoft Safety Scanner (also free) can help identify and isolate the intruders, and prevent future problems. The Malicious Software Removal Tool can restore your computer back to normal operating standards if it has been infected.

Lavasoft - this site provides a free download of AdAware, which identifies and removes some--but not all--spyware programs from your computer.

Please be sure to tell your friends about this issue,
and do so without creating spam that others might not want.