Anti-Spyware Coalition publishes guidelines for developers

Software developers need to make sure they aren’t creating spyware that users won’t want and a way of resolving conflicts with the companies whose tools will remove their products, an international group of IT vendors and users said Thursday.

The Anti-Spyware Coalition released a pair of documents, “Best Practices: Factors for Use in the Evaluation of Potentially Unwanted Technologies” and “Conflict Identification and Resolution Process” that will be available on the organization’s Web site.

The best practices position paper outlines the ways developers might be including tracking, advertising display and system modifying capabilities in their products that rile users. The second paper looks at the problems that arise when two programs attempt to use one resource to deal with spyware or perform identical functions.

“While the main audience for this document is anti-spyware vendors, ASC believes that it will also aid publishers of potentially unwanted technologies to make their products less harmful and more desirable to users, and therefore will benefit users, software publishers and anti-spyware developers alike,” the first paper says.

Ross Schulman, program associate the Washington-based Centre for Democracy and Technology which helps organize the Anti-Spyware Coalition, said the best practices could help companies that make adware but whose end result invades users’ privacy or cause harm to their systems.

“There is a broad category of potentially unwanted software,” he said. “Following these best practices will never make (developing a program for) stealing bank account information okay. There is some stuff in the middle there with companies that actually want to do legitimate business but are on the wrong side of a grey area.”

Michael Berg, a consultant with MDB based in Abbotsford, B.C. who specializes in spyware removal, said the problem is not necessarily wayward developers.

“I think it’s more a case of prevention. If they have proper antivirus on their machines, if they’re more diligent about not downloading those Santa Claus screensavers at Christmastime, that will keep it off their system,” he said, adding that even those with spyware removal tools often fail to run regular scans on their machines. “They might have the ability to fight the problem, but they don’t’ take their medication.”

Schulman described the Anti-Spyware Coalition as a “consensus body” with a wide range of countries involved. That means lobbying for legislation to deal with spyware difficult if not a wasted effort, he said. Instead, the Coalition hopes that developers will voluntarily abide by the guidelines offered in the two papers.

“We don’t aim to try to be a police force of any kind in the industry,” he said.

The Anti-Spyware Coalition plans to develop a database of contacts among spyware removal firms to help facilitate communication in the event of a conflict, Schulman said.

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