Earlier this year, researchers at Symantec Corp. wanted to see just how bad the spyware epidemic had become. So they took a brand new PC out of the box, connected it to the Internet without any standard protection software and browsed. An hour later, they dissected the machine.
The autopsy results weren't pretty. The unscientific experiment suggested something parents have known for a while now — spyware makers are aggressively targeting children.
After visiting five or six Web sites aimed at kids, and clicking around a bit, the computer had been loaded with 359 different pieces of adware software. A deluge of pop-up ads followed.
While other categories of sites produced plenty of pop-up ads — a similar experiment of travel sites yielded 64 adware programs, and sports sites 17 — children's' sites were the undisputed leader.
"Kids are targeted because they are easy to manipulate," said Kraig Lane of Symantec's consumer Internet security products group. He declined to name the Web sites Symantec visited, but described them as typical, mainstream sites for children.
Kids hunting for song lyrics, free games or video game "cheats" are the easiest targets, experts say. Such sites are often laced with pop-up producing software. Ads on the sites tempt users with flickering "punch the president" games and free iPod offers. Often, just clicking on one of those banner ads, followed by one more click, is enough to doom a PC to a mountain of pop-ups.
That's one reason a recent study by America Online and the National Cyber Security Alliance found four of five PCs were infected with spyware or adware.
"Spyware is a pervasive weed growing into the playgrounds of Internet," said AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein. "This shows an unprotected computer with a broadband connection is really just a high-speed sewage pipe."
Pop-up ad companies aren't clamoring to get advertisers in front of children on the Net, said Tom Pahl, an attorney at the Federal Trade Commission who studies spyware. Instead, firms are just getting to the parents through their kids.
"Kids are an easy way to sneak software onto the PC," Pahl said. "The comps we've investigated, I don't know any that specifically targeted kids. More likely, the behavior that makes you likely to contract spyware, that's the behavior kids engage in."
Pelted with pop-ups
While marketing firms debate the distinctions of adware, spyware and consumer consent, child safety expert Parry Aftab says most parents see the same headache — pop-up ads.
"When I talk to parents, you can always spot the parents with boys who are gamers. They say, 'My computer is running so slow, I have adware and spyware everywhere.' I always ask if they have a child between age 9 and 15 who like games."
They are intentionally targeting kids without question, Aftab said.
Ben Edelman, a Harvard law student and critic of the pop-up industry, says the problem involves the biggest makers of adware software. He says, for example, that adware designers 180 Solutions and Claria, advertise on EZone.com, a popular Australian-based games site.
Claria, the maker of Gator software, is currently on 40 million computers, Edelman says. He alleges that the firm "plays on user confusion, carelessness, or naivete — including distributing its software in ways that disproportionately target children." At Ezone.com, an ad for Claria captured by Edelman on his website says, "Your computer clock may be wrong. Would you like to keep it accurate?" The ad looks like a Windows dialog box; clicking on it and agreeing to a download installs Claria's advertising software.
Edelman repeated the charge Wednesday at a CNET conference devoted to spyware issues.
Scott Eagle, Claria's chief marketing officer, in a telephone interview vigorously denied that Claria targets children. Ezone isn't a kids' site, he said — pointing to a bevy of other advertisers on the site that include big-name firms like 1800-Flowers.com, Cingular Wireless and MSN Search.
"While a detractor might tout that we target children as it makes for a nice inflammatory sound bite, the actual facts indicate that nothing can be further from the truth," Eagle later wrote in an email to MSNBC.com. "We buy advertising on sites that have an adult demographic (as that is who buys the products of our advertisers). We also do buy from ad networks and when we buy this inventory we request sites that are targeted to our adult demographic."
Dan Todd, president of 180 Solutions, also said most Ezone.com users are adults, and added that the site only generates about 10 or 15 software downloads each day.
"There is a general misnomer that game sites are kid sites," he said, adding that 180 Solutions doesn't target children.
Simon Edis, CEO of Ezone, said he was unaware that Claria was advertising on the site. After an inquiry from MSNBC.com, the firm changed its front page to create a new section of the site geared at children under 13 years old.
Wireless makes things worseWhile the pain of pop-up ad software is hardly new, Symantec says adware and spyware targeting children have quietly ticked up in recent months thanks to the proliferation of wireless networks. There will be 12.6 million home wireless networks in the U.S. by year's end, according to Jupiter Research.
And in wireless homes, it's much harder to control kids' Internet use, Lane said. The PC in the living room often isn't the only computer with Net access any more, he said.
"Parents are getting an eye opener in the last year, and it's driven by wireless internet, he said. "Last year, there was an old PC delegated to the kid, and that PC was offline. They used it to do their homework, and spent time trying to sneak onto to dad's machine for the Internet. Now that PC upstairs is connected wirelessly." Parents can't watch everything their kids are doing all the time, he said.
Industry groups and lawmakers are trying to fight back. Both America Online and Microsoft Corp. offer special anti-spyware tools. Microsoft's new anti-spyware program has been downloaded 14 million times since it was released, the firm says.
(MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
Meanwhile, the the Safeguard Against Privacy Invasions Act, or SPY Act, sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., is making its way through Congress. The bill passed the House last year, but died in the Senate. A slightly different version of the bill was passed by a House committee in February.
And just last week the New York State attorney general's office filed against Intermix Media Inc. of Los Angeles, alleging that firm secretly installed pop-up ad software on millions of computers. The firm tricked users with promises of free games and screen cursors, the lawsuit claims — tools often attractive to children.
But there are no signs of spyware letting up any time soon. Anti-spyware firm Webroot claimed in a report issued this week that adware is a $2 billion-a-year business, and home PCs are infected by an average of seven programs.
"I think if parents realized what was out there, you'd have a lot more parents setting parental controls," AOL's Weinstein said.