ComScore: Spyware or 'researchware'?

Controversy over widely used data collection tool could help define the limits of legitimate software behavior.

A battle has broken out over the proper definition of "spyware," pitting a Net research provider against critics who see little difference between its software and illicit programs that record personal data without consent.

ComScore Networks' Marketscore application is installed on more than 1 million PCs in the United States, forming the backbone of a well-regarded research service used by Fortune 500 companies, universities and media outlets, including CNET Now the software is in the privacy spotlight, tied to warnings from some universities and computer security experts about secretive and invasive software, sometimes known as adware or spyware, that can take over a PC with little or no warning.

ComScore denies the charges and is preparing to go on the offensive with a lobby campaign aimed at legitimizing data collection products such as Marketscore. A ComScore proposal currently being shopped to security firms and Internet service providers would create a new "researchware" label for its software in order to explicitly distinguish it from badly behaved spyware products.


What's new:
ComScore's Marketscore application is in the privacy spotlight, tied to warnings from some universities and computer security experts about adware and spyware.

Bottom line:
The controversy over the widely used data collection tool could help define limits of legitimate software behavior.

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"There's a small group of people in universities who've taken it upon themselves to take an issue with our software," said Dan Hess, senior vice president of industry analysis at ComScore. "We're trying to make them fully aware of the nature of our (products and services). It's a completely voluntary program."

What's in a name? Quite a bit, it turns out, if you happen to make your living tracking the private lives of millions of consumers over the Web.

Labels such as spyware and adware cut a wide swath, with many gray areas that can spark disagreements among software makers, consumers and security experts over legitimate and illegitimate practices. Now these basic categories are poised for an overhaul, as federal spyware legislation moves forward and companies like ComScore push for finer definitions from the security companies that are largely responsible for classifying specific products one way or the other.

Depending on how these changes are handled, consumers could face an even more bewildering labyrinth of warnings and terminology over little-understood products such as Marketscore and dozens of other products up for grabs on the Web.

Webroot Software, an Internet security company that counts Microsoft and EarthLink among its customers, said it plans to unveil a new category of potential threats in the next version of its security software, due out in the next few months.

"We're going to have an 'other' category, where we'll be able to identify things like Marketscore, describe what it does, and give users an option to remove it," said Richard Stiennon, vice president of threat research at Webroot. "It's ironic. When we do focus groups with consumers, they say they have too much information. So they're not going to be happy, but we're going to do it."

Webroot currently identifies Marketscore as a subcategory of

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