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Workshop: Sizing Up Spyware

The technology industry wants to stamp out spyware, but first there's a question of semantics: Just what is it? Everyone agrees spyware is a growing menace--one that has become a security concern for many IT departments--but defining it hasn't been easy. Now, an effort is under way to better understand the pesky programs that are clogging up computers, at the same time IT professionals are hustling to contain them.

"We have to deal with spyware/adware on a weekly basis," Scott Larsen, manager of information systems with group-travel company Groople Inc., says in an E-mail. "From a staffing perspective, the cleanup usually exceeds the time it takes to handle an antivirus infection."

The problem is complicated by the fact that a fuzzy line separates intrusive spyware from legitimate online-marketing programs called adware. Microsoft recently learned how hard it can be to distinguish what's legitimate when a test version of its new Windows AntiSpyware

tool mistakenly treated a Dutch Web site, Startpagina.nl, as a "browser hijacker." Microsoft was forced to issue an apology, along with undisclosed compensation. Last week, Microsoft issued a paper explaining how it classifies spyware and other potentially unwanted software.

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report, based on an industry workshop it hosted last year, that calls on the business community to come up with a definition of spyware. "Because of the challenges of developing a workable definition of spyware, nearly all panelists expressed the concern that legislation or regulations tied to a definition of the term 'spyware' might define the term so broadly that it would inadvertently cover some types of beneficial or benign software," the FTC observed.

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