More than half of Canadians polled on behalf of AOL Canada believe their ISPs should take a leading role in protecting them from spyware, software programs that collect personal information about Internet users and advise spammers or advertisers

about the sites they visit.

AOL Canada Inc. has labelled 2004 the year of the invisible threat because last year people were focused “”on things that were much more visible to users and showed up in the press a lot more — you know, viruses that take over your machine or cause your machine to crash or spam that was clogging people’s mailboxes,”” said Alex Leslie, vice-president of technology at Toronto-based AOL Canada.

“”What we think has happened though is that (users have been blind to) this lurking threat posed by spyware that’s sitting on people’s machines.””

Fifty-three per cent of respondents said contending with this software was the responsibility of ISPs, whereas 31 per cent said the onus was on users and 12 per cent wanted the government to shoulder the burden. The remaining four per cent had no idea what spyware is.

Despite the prominent Canadian view it’s up to ISPs to deal with spyware, Internet companies have relatively little control over some of this software, said Tom Copeland, chair of the Ottawa-based Canadian Association of Internet Providers who runs his own ISP,, in Cobourg, Ont.

Copeland said spyware is inadvertently implemented in two ways: either by clicking on a link activating a Javascript that will initiate the software installation or by using software that Internet surfers proactively download and install on their machines. He said users will at least receive a warning if they have appropriate security settings in their Internet browser.

Since this activity is occurring on the client’s end of the connection, it’s something the ISP cannot filter out, Copeland said. “”People using the Internet are their own worst enemies. The temptation to click on a file and open it is just so great for so many people.””

Copeland said the ISP must try to resolve the problem through education (many already provide security information on their Web sites or regular client updates) but take care not to limit the legitimate use of the Internet, said Copeland. At the same time, he added, users must implement recommendations and be wary of software they download.

AOL Canada, for one, said it offers a free collection of tools to automatically scan, identify and disable surveillance products on computers.

AOL Canada Internet account holders who run its anti-spyware software are “”shocked at the number of pieces of spyware that are running on the average person’s PC,”” Leslie said. Over the next eight weeks, the ISP will release specific numbers on the volume of tracking taking place.

Meanwhile, the study’s other findings include:

  • ninety per cent of Canadians know all online activities can be monitored without their knowledge;
  • young Canadians are aware of the threats, but older Internet users are more likely to act on the information;
  • computer users in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are more educated about spyware and more likely to protect themselves than residents of the central and eastern provinces;
  • men make up the majority who think monitoring spyware programs should be the government’s duty; and
  • women account for most of the respondents who believe it was the job of ISPs.

The AOL Canada Online Safety Study, which surveyed 613 Canadians, is a series of national telephone surveys being conducted by Maritz: Thompson Lightstone.

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