Tag Archives: Spyware

Sears And KMart Installing Spyware on Users Computers

3 Jan

Yet another corporate example of how not to win over the marketplace.

From Ars Technica:

Sears and Kmart are places you might go when you need a new air conditioner filter or a lawnmower; they’re not generally thought of as havens for spyware. But that’s what the two stores have become, at least online, where their web sites were found to be installing software to track users’ every online move—all without their knowledge. Security researchers are now hammering Sears (the owner of both Sears.com and Kmart.com) for the move, despite Sears’ claims that users were notified adequately beforehand.

The story goes like this: late last year, Sears.com and Kmart.com began asking users if they wanted to participate in a “community” online (presumably a community made up of Sears and Kmart aficionados). In late December, security researcher Benjamin Googins at Computer Associates noticed, however, that the “community” actually installed software from comScore, a market research firm, in order to track the web activities of the sites’ visitors.

Googins stated on his company’s blog that Sears had installed spyware which transmitted everything—”including banking logins, email, and all other forms of Internet usage”—to comScore for analysis. This was all allegedly done with no notice that anything was being installed, and it ran contrary to documentation about the community that said any data collected would stay within Sears’ hands at all times.

But wait, there’s more! In an update to his original post, Googins noted that Sears actually offers a slightly different privacy policy—via the same URL—to compromised computers versus those that have yet to install the software. “If you access that URL with a machine compromised by the Sears proxy software, you will get the policy with direct language (like ‘monitors all Internet behavior’). If you access the policy using an uncompromised system, you will get the toned-down version (like ‘provide superior service’),” he wrote.

Surprisingly, Sears VP Rob Harles responded to Googins’ original post, stating that the company “goes to great lengths to describe the tracking aspect.” He claims that “clear notice” is provided to users multiple times throughout the sign-up process. The “community” continued on.

Now, spyware researcher Ben Edelman has taken a look at the situation, and he agrees with Googins’ assessment. Edelman heavily scrutinized all documentation that came with signing up for the community and found a few mentions of tracking software buried deep within the tangled legalese (for example, one mention was on page 10 of a 54-page license document). This, he says, goes against regulations by the Federal Trade Commission that require clear, unavoidable disclosure and “express consent” from the user before installing such software.

The two vague disclosures that Edelman found both fail to meet the FTC’s standards, he says, and he argues that Harles couldn’t possibly be more incorrect in his assertions that Sears goes to great lengths—or any lengths at all—to inform users of what’s going on.

The whole incident is reminiscent of another recent privacy blunder by Facebook, where its Beacon application tracked user activity elsewhere on the web and reported it back to the site for the world to see. The difference is that Facebook reacted relatively quickly to the community outrage (that is, the real, actual Facebook community, and not a nebulous term to describe being tracked by a retailer) and made significant changes to how Beacon interacted with the users it was tracking. The situation is still not perfect—the tool still tracks users’ activity even if they choose not to have it displayed—but it puts Facebook light-years ahead of where Sears is right now. As of today, Sears’ online community—complete with very detailed comScore tracking software—is still available online.



Adobe & Omniture Spying On CS3 Users

31 Dec

First Adobe went the paid ad route  with Yahoo, now they are snooping on users. Sounds like Adobe is getting a bit too frisky…and Omniture is getting well…if not untrustworthy…suspicious.

From Ars Technica:

It all began with a post at UNEASYsilence titled “Lies, Lies and Adobe Spies” which caught on to the fact that Adobe CS3 apps were calling out to a suspiciously-crafted IP address. As it turns out, the IP in question— (note the capital O instead of a zero)—is not an IP at all, but rather a domain owned by statistics-tracking firm Omniture.

Criticism and conspiracy theories quickly erupted across the web, calling for an answer from Adobe over what looked like a clear invasion of privacy crafted to look like a typical local IP address. The holidays aren’t always the best time to ask a corporation as large as Adobe for an answer on issues like this, but Photoshop Product Manager John Nack came to at least a preliminary rescue. Across a couple of posts at his official Adobe blog, Nack took it upon himself to dig into the matter.

According to Nack’s investigation, Adobe’s CS3 apps call out to Omniture’s services to track a few usage statistics across Adobe products. Specifically, only three things are tracked: the news items presented in some apps’ welcome screens, Adobe-hosted content loaded in Bridge’s implementations of Opera and Flash Player (Bridge is the asset management component of Creative Suite), and Adobe online help systems like forums and the Exchange service, but only upon a user’s request.

As for the suspicious nature of Omniture’s faux-IP URL, Nack is less sure. He also agrees with users’ concerns over the matter and says he’s doing his best to find out more. It is likely, however, that Omniture is not returning Nack’s calls just as it isn’t returning Ars Technica’s, again probably due to holiday vacations. Other theories postulate that the URL crafting is both a technical and social engineering attempt to fool curious users and firewalls that might use some kind of wild card to allow 192.168.* requests. An underhanded tactic to be sure, but one that would allow Omniture to continue collecting usage statistics from many of Adobe’s users.

Adding fuel to the fire, Omniture’s own explanation of the “2o7.net” domain (note the lowercase “o” in Omniture’s usage) explains absolutely nothing about the disguising of the domain its clients’ products call. Even worse, Omniture’s opt-out method only covers individual web browsers, not applications. Neither Adobe nor Omniture offer an opt-out method that covers Creative Suite 3 applications, forcing power users concerned over this issue to add the specific Omniture URL to a firewall or other monitoring utility such as ObDev’s Little Snitch. Needless to say, this isn’t exactly as user-friendly as a splash screen check box, or even an application preference.

There’s a lesson to be learned from this latest marketing and privacy snafu, and Adobe and Omniture had better be taking notes. Omniture is clearly at fault—and still owes consumers an explanation—for trying to sneak this URL into clients’ products, and Adobe can’t be short on alternatives for product statistics tracking. One of the oddest things about the whole situation is that the outcry has focused on the crafty URL and not the stats tracking, suggesting that many CS3 users are used to companies watching (anonymously) over their backs. But no one likes wool, even digital wool, being pulled over their eyes or their routers.


Facebook’s Beacon Flat Out Spyware

3 Dec


Computer Associates is reporting that despite Facebook’s assurances that they will be more transparent in their logging and reporting issues, Facebook’s Beacon will report back to Facebook on members’ activities on third-party sites that participate in Beacon even if the users are logged off from Facebook.

“… investigation reveals that Beacon is more intrusive and stealthy than anyone had imagined. In his note, titled “Facebook’s Misrepresentation of Beacon’s Threat to Privacy: Tracking users who opt out or are not logged in,” he explains that he created an account on Conde Nast’s food site Epicurious.com, a site participating in Beacon, and saved three recipes as favorites. He saved the first recipe while logged in to Facebook, and he opted out of having it broadcast to his friends on Facebook. He saved the second recipe after closing the Facebook window, but without logging off from Epicurious or ending the browser session, and again declined broadcasting it to his friends. Then he logged out of Facebook and saved the third recipe. This time, no Facebook alert appeared asking if he wanted the information displayed to his friends.After checking his network traffic logs, Berteau saw that in all three cases, information about his activities was reported back to Facebook, although not to his friends. That information included where he was on Epicurious, the action he had just taken and his Facebook account name.” 


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