Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Spy Strategy: "The Plot to Hijack Your Computer"

This week's cover story at Business Week, "The Plot to Hijack Your Computer," is a fascinating and disturbing inside account of the Machiavellian advertising strategies of Direct Revenue, a New York-based Internet advertising concern. Direct Revenue is currently defending itself in court from a lawsuit by New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer alleging that Direct Revenue illegally installed spyware in millions of computers against the users' wishes. Here's an excerpt:

According to angry consumers and the New York State Attorney General, Direct Revenue makes "spyware." These programs track where you go on the Internet and clutter your screen with annoying pop-up advertisements for everything from pornography to wireless phone plans. Spyware can get stuck in your computer's hard drive as you shop, chat, or download a song. It might arrive attached to that clever video you just nabbed at no charge. Web security company McAfee Inc. (MFE) estimates that nearly three-quarters of all sites listed in response to Internet searches for popular phrases like "free screen savers" or "digital music" attempt to install some form of advertising software in visitors' computers. Once lodged there, spyware can sap a PC's processing power, slow its functioning, and even cause it to crash.

This explains the vitriol aimed at Direct Revenue. The company, located in a loft above a clothing boutique in New York's hip SoHo district, has been a pioneer in a seamy corner of the booming Net advertising industry. Although it is small by some corporate standards, having generated sales of about $100 million since its start in 2002, its programs have burrowed into nearly 100 million computers and produced billions of pop-up ads.

Direct Revenue's swift rise illustrates the intertwining of spyware and mainstream online marketing. The Web is the hottest game in advertising, but what's rarely acknowledged is the extent to which unsavory pop-ups boost the returns. Here's how it often works: Sellers of advertising, ranging from giant Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) to much smaller networks, recruit clients, tally the clicks their ads generate, and charge accordingly. But then Yahoo and the other advertising companies sign up partners that distribute the ads beyond their own sites in return for a fee, and those partners sign up other partners. Down the line, a big piece of the business winds up in the hands of outfits like Direct Revenue, which disseminate the ads as pop-ups and share revenue with their more mainstream partners. Some advertisers say their messages have appeared in pop-ups without their permission. Others seek out pop-ups, and Direct Revenue frequently sells ads directly to such advertisers.

Spyware rakes in an estimated $2 billion a year in revenue, or about 11% of all Internet ad business, says the research firm IT-Harvest. Direct Revenue's direct customers have included such giants as Delta Air Lines (DALRQ) and Cingular Wireless. It has sold millions of dollars of advertising passed along by Yahoo. And Direct Revenue has received venture capital from the likes of Insight Venture Partners, a respected New York investment firm.

Read the whole thing. The story certainly illustrates the dark side of web capitalism -- the "greed is good" school of Internet marketing. There's not much here on how web surfers can protect themselves from this scourge, however. I've spent at least two Saturday afternoons cleaning spyware and hijackers off my hard-drive. (Check out this Wikipedia entry on Winfixer spyware for more information.) What a pain! At the least, make sure you've got good antivirus and antispyware protection up and running on your PC -- and just be careful out there when cruising the Internet!


Unknown said...

Uh, anyone heard of Spybot? Or IceSword, a rootkit? I use it daily.

Donald Douglas said...

Hi Jenn:

I use Spybot too! It works really well. In fact, I've got at least three anti-spyware programs on my PC, plus one Microsoft security system that pops up now and then when blocking a pest. Also, my ISP provides a whole security suite as part of the monthly fee, so that helps. Still, I get nasty little stuff that squeaks through here and there. BTW, I backed you up a little bit on that pro-Hillary blog yesterday.

Take it easy.

prying1 said...

Tar and feather them and then keel haul 'em!

Donald Douglas said...

Hi Paul! Thanks for visiting.