The Spy in the Box


Spyware is the next bad new thing. Whereas spam brazenly offends, or simply annoys by clogging e-mail systems, spyware quietly infects.

This software creeps from the Web into personal computers, changing home pages, combing hard drives for passwords and credit card numbers and hijacking Internet browsers to call up cascades of pop-up advertisements.

One year ago, just 1% of the technical support calls to computer makers concerned spyware. Today, spyware causes nearly half of all system failures reported by Windows users, according to Microsoft. Another measure of the threat is that software and hardware makers, who usually regard government as a giant foot stomping out innovation, have been begging regulators to crack down on spyware.


Last week, the Federal Trade Commission filed its first-ever spyware lawsuit, accusing a New Hampshire spammer of engaging in unfair and deceptive trade practices by hawking software that hijacks Web browsers, then adding insult to injury by selling software to fix the problem. This is like a burglar who ransacks your house, then sends his well-dressed accomplice to your door a few days later to sell you a security system.

Congress too is in the early stages of taking action. This month, the House of Representatives passed two bills intended to thwart spyware. The more practical of the two is the proposed I SPY Prevention Act, by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose). The two-page bill simply authorizes fines and five-year jail terms for using spyware to steal private information or damage computers, and it sets aside $10 million for enforcement.

When it comes to computer crimes, simple solutions like this are usually best.

For an example of what doesn’t work, see last year’s congressional effort to reduce spam by compiling a public list of e-mail addresses supposedly off-limits to spammers. This only gave the lawless a convenient address directory.

We’d like to see more spent on anti-spyware enforcement and even harsher penalties. How about boiling offenders in oil?