Understanding Computers
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  Watching your steps on the WWW
Back in the halcyon days of the World Wide Web (WWW), say 1995, everyone thought that advertising would finance the expensive equipment that was required to keep the internet running. What went wrong will be the subject of scholarly works for many years to come. My own theory is that the lack of a practical teleportation device makes web-shopping only slightly more satisfying than the Home Shopping Network. Whatever the reason, the promised boom went bust.
Transferring information from one place to another at the speed of an electron is what the web has always done best. Unfortunately the web no longer just dispenses information to your home computer, it also gathers it. As the public becomes inured to advertising, advertisers have become more focused in order to succeed. The most valuable commodity on the web today is personal information.
Did you ever wonder why the New York Times needs to know your Gender, Zip Code, Household Income, Job Function, Year of Birth, and more before they'll let you read an article on-line? All that information is collated with your choice of articles to produce a demographic profile of people like you. Harmless enough, but the same information can also be used in very specific ways. A friend of mine starting receiving advance seating offers for every major theatre event in Toronto after he bought tickets to a Cats on the web.
Most market research is done in a forthright manner. You have the option of providing the requested information or never using the service. But any time something is valuable, you can count on someone figuring out an unscrupulous way to acquire it. The New York Times asks for the information right up front, Other companies plant programs on your computer which send information back to them any time that you're connected to the internet.
These programs are known by their authors as adware. We nerds call them spyware. Spyware usually accompanies shareware programs and is often used to finance software development. Spyware is perfectly legal. Users unwittingly agree to it when they accept the End User Licence Agreement (EULA) of an applications. The EULA is the long boring document that pops up at the start of an installation that you have to accept before it proceeds. Few people actually read EULAs, but some are longer and scarier than the latest Stephen King offering.
The law restricts the type of information spyware can send back to its publisher, so what's all the fuss about? For one thing, the potential for abuse is enormous, since spyware is capable of relaying just about any information that's on your computer. Another problem is the near, if not total, impossibility of regulating the web. Canadian law just isn't enforced in Kazakhstan.
Even without the political and privacy considerations, I dislike spyware because it makes your computer run more slowly and, to a nerd, that's the greatest sin of all. You'll find a link to Ad-ware a free application that detects and removes spyware from your computer, on our Links page.
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