Online bargains can come with strings attached and sometimes lots of free spam

J.B. Miles

I routinely conduct online research about computer products, so I have no doubt that my hard drive is occasionally invaded by bits of tracking software that collects information about me and my buying habits.

How do I know? Simple. If my antispam software and I aren't vigilant, I receive tons of e-mail about products and services that don't interest me in the least. The lead sentence often reads, 'Here's the information you requested.'

I didn't request it, of course. Without my knowledge or permission, I was placed on a list with thousands or millions of other hapless souls simply because somebody somewhere used a comparison-shopping Web crawler or sneaked a bot onto my hard drive.

Call me old-fashioned, but I view any attempt by anybody to collect information about me for marketing purposes as an invasion of privacy, particularly when they place the illegitimate software on my very own PC.

I've just signed up for a cable-based Internet service and I'm delighted with its speed, but frankly I'm a little worried about its always-on feature. How do I protect myself around the clock? My service provider claims it has taken steps to prevent intrusions, but I'm not so sure. It advises me not to use a firewall, so I'm even more worried.

Once in a while, my brand-new PC bogs down inexplicably, particularly when I'm online. Occasionally a Web site flashes up uninvited. Is Big Brother or some marketing rep not only watching me but using my PC resources as well? Is somebody using part of my CPU for research on biological warfare? Maybe that's paranoid, but I can't help but wonder.

Until I figure out an answer, I'll shut my computer down when I'm not working. Even then, I'm not sure it's entirely safe.

I download plenty of software from the Internet, but always with great caution'and only from companies I know. An online news source recently reported that millions of people unknowingly downloaded a program that was piggybacked onto a file-sharing program sold online. By using the PCs' own processing power, the bootlegged program could turn them into online nodes for disseminating music, ads and other commercial content.

It turns out that there was nothing illegal about the arrangement because a standard consent agreement was included with the online purchase agreement, but few would argue that the online seller used questionable ethics.

To avoid a shock like this, the first rule of thumb is to never download software from a company you're not sure about'and, of course, read the consent agreement carefully. A few organizations, like the nonprofit group Truste of San Francisco, certify certain Web sites as safe for consumers, but generally you'll have to trust your own instincts and common sense.

Be suspicious of inexpensive utility and applications software sold only through online sales outlets. As the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I wouldn't download any software without knowing who made it, where the company is located and exactly what the product does.

I'm not overly jumpy about cyberterrorism, but in this post-9-11 era, it's impossible not to give it some thought. If it's easy enough to create spyware that collects personal data about all of us for marketing purposes, doesn't it follow that some, ah, primate out there is developing software that could prove as damaging to our computers and networks as anthrax is to our bodies?

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at [email protected].

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