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The wizened Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said that he could not define obscenity, but that he knew it when he saw it. The same has long been the case with spyware. It defies definition, but most people know it when parasitic programs envelop resources on their computer and clog their browsers with pop-up ads. According to the Anti-Spyware Coalition, which includes Microsoft, EarthLink, McAfee and Hewlett-Packard, spyware is defined as embedded software that impairs “users’ control over material changes that affect their user experience, privacy or system security; use of their system resources, including what programs are installed on their computers; or collection, use and distribution of their personal or otherwise sensitive information.” The blight of spyware has struck tens of millions of computer users across the globe. In fact, according to a recent nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (PIP), 91 percent of Internet users have changed their online behavior for fear of becoming victims.Regarding spyware, the most alarming statistics show that: � 81 percent of Internet users say they have stopped opening e-mail attachments unless they are sure these documents are safe. � 48 percent of Internet users say they have stopped visiting particular Web sites that they fear might deposit unwanted programs on their computers. � 25 percent of Internet users say they have stopped downloading music or video files from peer-to-peer networks to avoid getting unwanted software programs on their computers. � 18 percent of Internet users say they have started using a different Web browser to avoid software intrusions. � About 93 million American internet users (68 percent of them) have had computer trouble in the past year that is consistent with problems caused spyware and viruses, though 60 percent of those who had problems were not sure where the problem originated. � Some 25 percent of Internet users have seen new programs on their computers that they did not install or new icons on their desktop that seemed to come out of nowhere. � One in five Internet users (18 percent) have had their homepage inexplicably changed. � 49 percent of Internet users see spyware as a serious threat to their online security. � Surprisingly, 73 percent of Internet users said they did not read “click-on” user agreements primarily responsible for the propagation of adware. The report, written by PIP’s Associate Director Susannah Fox, says that those who have broadband connections at home and those who range far and wide online are among those most vulnerable to spyware. Some of the most risky online behaviors that seem to attract spyware are downloading peer-to-peer services and swapping files over them, visiting adult Web sites, and playing online games. “Familiarity breeds contempt when it comes to spyware. The more Internet users know about these programs, the more they want to sound the alarm and take steps to protect themselves,” says Fox. “These survey results show that as Internet users gain experience with spyware and adware, they are more likely to say they are changing their behavior. But what is more alarming is the larger universe of people who have struggled with mysterious computer problems, but have no idea why. Internet users are increasingly frustrated and frightened that they are not in charge of their Internet experience.” This new telephone survey was conducted among a sample of 1,336 Internet users and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. It was designed to probe the impact of spyware and adware on people’s Internet experiences. According to the press release, PIP aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the Internet through collection of data and analysis of real-world developments as they affect the virtual world. Support for the non-profit Pew Internet Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center. Sam Fineman is the editor-in-chief of Internet Law & Strategy. Subscribe to Internet Law & Strategy.

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