Opinion and Return on Technology and Manufacturing & Technology

ALTOM: Is unwanted software loading on your machine?

May 7, 2011

One of the biggest drawbacks to the march of technology is how often it lets others dictate how you use your own devices. Said in business terms, another guy’s business model is getting in my way, and we’re not even competitors.

An example is movie DVDs. Just about every DVD nowadays has copyright warnings that play each time the DVD is loaded, and you generally can’t just fast-forward through them; the DVD maker wants you to sit through it, and is going to force you to do so. For some reason, they think it will make some kind of difference to pirates, while it only infuriates the buying customer—me. I just turn away and do other things while it grinds on. I know copying DVDs is unlawful. I don’t need the DVD manufacturer to keep reminding me of it by seizing control of my remote.

At least DVDs are in my personal realm and don’t have anything to do with my professional gear, but even there, businessfolk are tinkering with my equipment without my permission. In some cases, it looks like I’ve given my permission, but I haven’t.

Ask.com is both a search engine and a cause of considerable swearing among millions of computer users. It was once called “Ask Jeeves,” named after the manservant in the Bertie Wooster books by P.G. Wodehouse. Ask.com has a toolbar for browsers that it wants you to download and a search engine it wants you to use, but since you’re not likely to go to Ask.com while Google is still in business, it had to adopt a devious way to get you onto its site. The toolbar became “foistware.”

Foistware is software that is pushed on you, often without your knowledge and with only token consent. Old terms for it might include “adware,” “spyware” and even “virus,” as it does things you don’t want happening. But it’s not the product of a programmer gone rogue. Foistware is pushed by companies that desperately want your attention, and they’ll get in front of you no matter what it takes. And as a final little insult, by installing any of the various foistware products, you implicitly accept their terms and conditions, whatever they may be.

To get market penetration, Ask.com made deals with a lot of other companies that featured downloadable software. Almost invariably, the download process of the prime software has a small note that tells you that Ask.com’s toolbar will be installed unless you opt out by clearing the checkbox. Most people don’t notice it, so the Ask.com toolbar comes along and gets put on your machine.

For the most part, the toolbar addition is innocuous, and you can just make it appear to go away as you can any of the other toolbars. But the Ask.com toolbar does something else, too—it shoves out whatever search engine your browser is set to use by default, anJ33d substitutes itself. Now, instead of querying Google or Bing from that browser bar, you’re searching Ask.com. Good for Ask.com. Bad for me. The foistware toolbar is installed by a variety of popularly downloaded software, such as (ironically enough) ZoneAlarm, an application that detects viruses and other malware.

Although the toolbar may be hidden, it still forces you back to Ask.com as your default search engine. And Ask.com doesn’t make it easy to reverse course. It isn’t installed as a browser add-in, which is generally simple to disable, but as true system software. To get rid of it, you have to use your system’s software removal procedure, which a great many people don’t know how to do.

To be fair, it’s not like Google isn’t in this game as well. Adobe’s Flash player for browsers has numerous updates, and they come with foistware, too. This time it’s the Google toolbar that will be visited upon you if you’re not careful. As with the Ask.com toolbar, you have to opt out to avoid having it grafted onto your system. Skype, the popular chat and phone application, will install six different Skype functions beyond Skype itself, including plug-ins for two browser types, as well as the foisted Google toolbar, making Skype one of the superstars of foistware.

Most foistware isn’t malicious, although some of it certainly can be, making your system slow down and seem cranky. You can avoid most of it by being vigilant about what’s being loaded on your computer and making sure that there are no checkboxes already filled in for junk you don’t want when software is installing. This keeps down the honest infections.

For others, you can look at your list of installed software and get rid of anything that smacks of foistware. Then get some good adware-cleaning software, like Ad-Aware from LavaSoft (www.lavasoft.com) or SpywareBlaster from Javacool (www.javacoolsoftware.com) to finish the job.•

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Altom is a consultant specializing in pairing businesses with appropriate technology. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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