If you answered (a), then good luck to you. Not sure you need the sort of help I offer in this column. If you answered (b) or (c), then you’ll be pleased to know that while that kind of thing doesn’t happen very often in the shopping mall, it happens on-line. A lot. The only problem is that, unlike at the mall, you can’t call a policeman and have Placard Guy arrested.
Welcome to the wacky world of “behavioural marketing.” Enter, stage left, a United States-based company called The Gator Corporation. Enter, stage right, a student at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society called Ben Edelman, one of the few people who have spent time trying to figure out how software from companies like Gator works.
What happens, Edelman reckons, is this: Gator presents itself as an innocent, free, program that helps you fill in on-line forms, remembering your passwords. You, the innocent surfer, download it and pretty soon you’re starting to get ads appearing over your browser window. Some pop up over what you’re reading, some appear behind it. Some slide across the screen. You, being innocent and unsuspecting, figure they are from the site you happen to be visiting. Later, you notice eerily relevant ads appearing where they shouldn’t be: an ad for a rival shipping company when you’re visiting DHL, say. Or a loan offer when you’re checking your bank account. This is the guy with the personalized billboard stalking you; this is behavioural marketing.
How can a piece of software that’s supposed to be helping you store personal information suddenly seem to know what you’re looking for on-line? The answer’s not a simple one, and it tells us something about how unregulated, and potentially hazardous, the Internet frontier is. Ben Edelman’s research tells us this: Gator software, once installed, will transmit your browsing habits — which Web sites you visit, how long you stay there, a unique ID number Gator has assigned you, and, for good measure, your zip code — back to Gator HQ. Based on that information, Gator HQ will transmit packages of targeted ads to your computer, which will then pop up miraculously as you browse the Internet.
Needless to say, a lot of companies are not too happy about this. How would you feel if your carefully designed site was suddenly being blotted out by someone else’s ads, especially if they were from a rival? Quite a few have launched legal challenges, including Dow Jones (the publisher of this magazine), which last year joined a group of 10 Web-site publishers in claiming that Gator’s pop-up ads violated copyright and trademark laws and allowed Gator to profit unjustly. This and most other cases have been settled before going to court, and their settlements have remained confidential.
What irks me is not that this software prevents companies from displaying what they want to on a screen (unless it happens to be over this column), but that it abuses the trust of casual Internet users. While Gator acknowledges it’s on your computer, it misleads you about what it’s really doing there. And plenty more such software — labelled “spyware,” for good reason — doesn’t even tell you that. And they’re a nightmare to get rid of: Uninstalling Gator normally, Edelman says, won’t necessarily remove it entirely, meaning it is still communicating with Gator HQ. What’s worse is what we don’t know: Gator says on its Web site that data it collects is not used to profile individual customers and declined to comment for this article, but in a recent interview with on-line tech magazine CNET, Gator’s senior vice-president for marketing, Scott Eagle, said of Edelman’s research: “Eighty percent of the magic is what he’ll never see. He’s only touching a part of the elephant”. Oddly, I don’t find that reassuring. As Edelman says of Gator: “From the design of the system, it could be tracking users’ behaviour in incredible detail.”
So what’s the solution? The simple answer is to banish all spyware. It slows things down, spits out information you should keep to yourself, and it fires back ads you could do without. Ad-aware from Lavasoft (www.lavasoftusa.com/software/adaware) does a great job of finding spyware on your PC and removing it safely. Be wary of free software offers, especially file-sharing services, screen savers, browser utilities, and “shopping assistants” (software that checks out prices for you), and, if you can’t be bothered to read all the legalspeak in user agreements, don’t install the software. And good luck with the back hair.
Here are some more tips to help you avoid spyware. If you need help storing passwords and personal details so you can access them on-line easily, try Siber Systems RoboForm software, which does everything that Gator does without the sneaky bits. Most browsers these days have features that do a lot of this, too: The latest version of Opera has a “wand” function that handles all your passwords, and has long sported a feature that can prepare your personal information (first name, gender, zip code) so you don’t have to type it in every time you visit a site that needs it.
For blocking pop-ups, try PopUpCop ($20 from www.popupcop.com), designed by a guy called Peter Eden who seems to take the whole thing very seriously (thankfully). Another spyware detection tool if you don’t like Ad-Aware: Patrick Kolla’s Spybot Search and Destroy (to be found at http://security.kolla.de/), which is both free and highly regarded.
To read more of Ben Edelman’s work on Gator, check out his Web site: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/ people/edelman/ads/gator/. Still not enough? Check out ScumWare (www.scumware.com), which promises “the latest information on the lowest forms of Internet-traffic hijacking.”