Business Week on The Plot To Hijack Your Computer.

The folks at Business Week have an excellent article on the rise of spyware company Direct Revenue titled The Plot To Hijack Your Computer that anyone who has been bedeviled by spyware would probably find informative. It opens with the following summary of opinions from computer users:

Consumers have strong opinions about Direct Revenue’s software. “If I ever meet anyone from your company, I will kill you,” a person who identified himself as James Chang said in an e-mail to Direct Revenue last summer. “I will f———kill you and your families.” Such sentiments aren’t unusual. “You people are EVIL personified,” Kevin Horton wrote around the same time. “I would like the four hours of my life back I have wasted trying to get your stupid uninvited software off my now crippled system.”

Sifting through a stack of customer complaints in June, 2005, a Direct Revenue employee decided to tally the most frequently used words of aggression: “die” (103 times), “f———” (44), and “kill” (15). Douglas Kee, then Direct Revenue’s chief of quality assurance (QA), ribbed colleagues in an e-mail that with all the death threats, it was a “good thing QA sits farthest away from the entrance.”

While I don’t condone the threats I can certainly understand the frustration they demonstrate as I’ve had to tangle with Direct Revenue’s spyware programs at work and on the PCs of friends and family members. I’m often asked by the victims of this company’s spyware why the company is so deceptive and dishonest. Simple, I reply, the popups their software strews across your screen makes for big money on the order of about $2 billion or so a year according to some estimates. The reason they make it so easy to install and so hard to get rid of is because they want a piece of that very big pie. The BW article quotes several emails that show Direct Revenue tried to clean up its act at one point, but found they were losing too many PCs in doing so:

In early 2005 the company was bundling its products with a file-sharing program called Morpheus, which users could download onto their computers. Morpheus required that Direct Revenue make its software easy to spot in a computer’s “Add/Remove” panel, which is the registry where a user can find most legitimate software and delete it. Direct Revenue agreed at first but after a few months noticed that thousands of new users it gained via Morpheus were quickly deleting the ad software. Kaufman, a co-founder of Direct Revenue, sent an e-mail to colleagues in February, 2005, saying the company should drop the Mr. Nice Guy routine. “We need to experiment with less user-friendly uninstall methodologies,” he wrote. The distribution agreement with Morpheus ended within three months.

Emphasis mine. Another interested part of the article talks about the open warfare that takes place between competing spyware companies as they battle for control over your PC:

From early on, a small group of programmers at Direct Revenue focused on how to protect their employer’s programs once they were lodged in a computer, current and former employees say. The team called itself Dark Arts after the term for evil magic in the Harry Potter series. One of the biggest threats Dark Arts addressed came from competing software. The presence of multiple spyware programs can so cripple a computer that no ads manage to get seen.

Dark Arts crafted software “torpedoes” that blasted rival spyware off computers’ hard drives. Competitors aimed similar weapons back at Direct Revenue’s software, but few could match the wizardry of Dark Arts. One adversary, Avenue Media, filed suit in federal court in Seattle in 2004, alleging that in a matter of days, Direct Revenue torpedoes had cut in half the number of people using one of Avenue Media’s programs. The suit settled without money changing hands, according to an attorney for Avenue Media, which is based in Curaçao. “This is ad warfare,” explains former Direct Revenue product manager Reza Khan. “Only the toughest and stickiest codes survive.”

In light of the Dark Arts stratagems, Direct Revenue management in early 2004 procured from its lawyers a modified user agreement that would supposedly be shown to PC owners. Within the densely written seven-page document was a declaration that Direct Revenue “could remove, disable, or render inoperative other adware programs resident on your computer, which, in turn, may…have other adverse impacts on your computer.”

Abram presented the new agreement to his troops with an impudence befitting the Dark Arts crew. “It’s a lawyer-approved license to kill,” the CEO said in a February, 2004, e-mail.

The whole article is a worthwhile read and I highly recommend it.

Found via SunbeltBLOG.

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