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This article originally appeared in NOW Magazine's August 26, 2004 issue. It can be accessed at www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2004-08-26/goods_next.php
The Spyware Sales Pitch

The creepiest phone call of my professional life originated from a cell phone about 60 miles east of Fort Myers. My caller, Mike, was driving towards Everglades National Park in a convertible, playing the part of the slick salesman from Florida. It was, ironically, the modern-day equivalent of a swamp land offer.

He was contacting me because he'd heard through the network that I am directing a global marketing initiative for a new e-business. He had a grade-A list of qualified names and e-mail addresses available for sale or rent and the technology required to deploy and track targeted advertising to them. When he inquired by e-mail whether or not I would be interested, I of course said yes, and we set up a time to speak.

On the phone Mike began by describing the "exceptionally large and unbelievably detailed" psychographic database he had available. He told me that I could "drill down" to any level of specific requirements I might have for my target audience, and that he could provide millions of people "regardless of (the) complexity (of my request)."

If I wanted a list of females between 18 and 23 who live in Canada, are interested in cars, orangutans, bhangra and archery, and who visit sites X and Y at least three times a week, then it would be "no problem" targeting these people specifically.

Pushing the mute button on my bullshit detector, I asked how he could possibly have a list like this.

His explanation was shockingly simple. His company has developed a program that tracks all the Web sites people visit and what they look for on search engines. This information then gets indexed and cross-referenced so profiles can be created for targeted-marketing purposes.

Who would allow all of their Internet activities to be tracked and recorded so their psychographic profiles could be exploited by marketers? Well, as it turns out, a lot of people, though they aren't necessarily aware of it.

The program gets distributed surreptitiously inside popular peer-to-peer (P2P) applications and, according to Mike, has been installed on more than 150 million computers. While most people running this program have not given their conscious and informed permission to have this information recorded, they have given their consent by blindly agreeing to the fine print in licensing agreements that explicitly allow for the distribution and installation of these nasty spyware and adware programs.

Mike has deals in place with P2P companies allowing him to pay them to distribute his software in their applications.

If you run any of the P2P file-trading programs that have become popular since the rise of Napster (i.e., BearShare, LimeWire, Kazaa) and have lax personal-computer safety habits, as the overwhelming majority do, then odds are high that you are bugged. Even worse, you may have some kind of malware running (malicious software like worms, viruses or Trojan horses).

Annoying pop-up ads aren't the only symptoms. You may also see the sudden appearance of new toolbars and bookmarks in Internet Explorer, unexplained browser crashes, your browser start-page changing and your computer slowing to a crawl because spyware is using too many system resources.

If you think you've been bugged, you can find out by running Patrick Kolla's universally loved (and absolutely free) SpyBot Search & Destroy (www.safer-networking.org). SpyBot rules – it's one of the best (if not the best) decontamination applications around. Also worth considering is Ad-Aware from LavaSoft (www.lavasoftusa.com/software/adaware/), though only the personal edition is free.

There are many businesses out there today that watch everything you do on the Internet and then sell that information to third parties. And whether you like it or not, you're cheap.

Mike's offer, on a CPM basis (cost per thousand ad impressions) was less expensive by a large margin than any of the legitimate media opportunities we considered. But the damage we would have caused to our brand by using marketing techniques people hate with a passion, as well as the incredible disgust I had for the opportunity, made us pass on it.

When I got off the phone, I had difficulty deciding what to do first: wash my hands or update my firewall.