Anti-spyware maker hunts down Gator

Just days after a federal judge rules that software makers are within their rights to deliver ads over Web sites, a technology company is arming consumers with a way to stop them.

Stefanie Olsen
Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
3 min read
Just days after a federal judge ruled that software makers are within their rights to deliver ads over Web sites, a technology company is arming consumers with a way to stop them.

interMute, a software maker based in Braintree, Mass., on Tuesday widely introduced SpySubtract, an application that scans PCs for software known as "spyware," or "adware," and automatically removes it. The 4-year-old company said the technology is specially constructed to fight software from Gator--a popular plug-in used to target ads--by deleting the plug-in automatically anytime it's detected.

"Companies like Gator are the Goliath that the average computer users are up against in the war for online privacy," said Ed English, CEO of interMute.

Spyware is designed to lurk behind the scenes on PCs, tracking Web surfing or computer-use habits in order to serve up advertisements. People typically acquire these applications after downloading other free software such as the file-sharing program Kazaa, which rely on the ad dollars. In extreme cases, software makers download spyware to people's machines surreptitiously with the use of pop-ups, Web pages or rogue e-mail, and through vulnerable browser settings.

English expects more spyware makers to crop up because of a recent ruling in a Virginia federal court in favor of adware maker WhenU, in a suit brought by U-Haul International. Like many Web operators, U-Haul had charged the company and its better-known brother, Gator, with trademark and copyright infringement for serving ads for rival Web sites atop its own pages. But Judge Gerald Bruce Lee dismissed the argument, saying that people consented to receive the ads when they downloaded the application, and consumers should have control of their desktops.

Despite the ruling, English and others argue that consumers are often unaware of the effects of adware and need tools to disarm it.

"It's a huge area because there's financial incentive behind spyware," English said. "They harvest your personal information, use it to pop up ads or upload your information to the Internet and create spam mailing lists."

The more common adware programs are Gator and WhenU, which come bundled with free applications such as BearShare, Kazaa or DivX compression technology. The adware has been the subject of much controversy. Consumers grow angry after discovering that they've downloaded the programs unwittingly, and Web publishers chafe over advertising that obscures their Web sites or directly competes with their own service. As a result, many Web site operators have sued Gator and WhenU for their practices, charging copyright and trademark infringement.

interMute's SpySubtract targets Gator with a feature called "Gator Slayer," which lets PC users choose to automatically delete the software anytime it's downloaded. In addition, the company said that it removes nearly 5,000 spyware components, allowing people to see how and when they downloaded an application.

The software is available in a free version and a professional version, which costs $29.95. The free version scans the PC completely and removes any spyware; after 30 days it performs a "quick scan," looking only at key areas that may be affected. SpySubtract Pro executes complete scans annually from an updated spyware database, which includes the most recent related programs circulating the Net.

English said the company released SpySubtract to approximately 10,000 users in recent weeks after the MSBlaster worm affected the use of its previous product, AdSubtract. More than 1 million people use AdSubtract to block pop-up ads, banners and Flash-animated ads. The technology helped customers of AdSubtract remove the virus and regain use of their anti-ad technology.

SpySubtract is not the only program to remove spyware. Programs including Ad-aware, SpyStopper and SpySweeper help people detect and delete unwanted applications from their desktops.