National | Technology

Issue: "Why the long face, Fidel?," May 1, 2004

Spying or marketing?

Federal regulators are giving closer scrutiny to so-called spyware, bothersome but essentially harmless programs that hide on computers and track online activity or generate pop-up ads. They cause no permanent damage, but they can invade users' privacy while slowing down processing and internet connections.

The typical PC hosts up to five spyware programs at once, according to a report commissioned by EarthLink. The Federal Trade Commission held a seminar with industry leaders to discuss the issue last month, following the introduction of a major anti-spyware bill in Congress earlier this year. Known as the SPY BLOCK (Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge) Act, it would prohibit software that installs on computers without the owner's consent.

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Spyware (marketers prefer the term adware) differs from malicious viruses and worms in that they are not created for destructive purposes. Plus their creators have a safer legal footing, since neither pop-up ads nor user tracking is illegal.

Several programs search for spyware much as anti-virus software hunts down viruses. Two major ones, Ad-aware and Spybot Search and Destroy, are available as free downloads. (EarthLink gives away another one called SpyAudit).

Scanned, tested, ready

New microchips may soon make the conventional bar code obsolete. Known as Radio Frequency ID, or RFID, these embedded chips make goods easier to track and harder to lose. Right now, countless businesses are scrambling to adopt RFID into day-to-day operations. Interest grew after a Department of Defense decree that vendors use the tags by next year, as well as similar demands by the Wal-Mart chain.

An RFID is a paper-thin processor with a tiny antenna that sends a low-frequency radio signal that acts like a homing beacon with a radius of about three feet. Special readers can identify items based on the signal.

Like bar codes, RFID tags can be placed on products, from books to military equipment parts, by the case or by individual unit. They cost about a quarter each and can pinpoint items as they travel through manufacture and distribution. Early uses of the RFID chips include Exxon Mobil's Speedpass payment system and the cashless toll booths on some highways.

Backers say one will soon be able to wheel an entire cart of groceries past an RFID scanner without having to check every item. One problem: disabling the chips. Once a customer buys an RFID-tagged product, its signal can still be detected-and that generates privacy concerns. The challenge is finding a way to turn off the signal without providing an opportunity for thieves.


Tim Berners-Lee, the key inventor of the World Wide Web, never patented his hypertext ideas and he didn't make much in the dot-com boom, but now he's a millionaire. The Finnish government awarded him a $1.2 million technology prize for innovation that improves "quality of life." Mr. Berners-Lee currently works at MIT, helping improve the web's technical standards.

Boeing will launch an in-flight internet service that was delayed for months because of the post-9/11 recession. The service, Connexion,

will cost from $9.95 for 30 minutes to $29.95 for flights longer than six hours. It launches this spring on Lufthansa and will appear on other overseas carriers.

Thomson unveiled new DVD players that can filter some explicit material, such as foul language and violence, from recent films (see p. 15). The players will carry the RCA brand, sell for about $79, and contain pre-programmed filters for 100 movies. Users may add additional titles for a $4.95 monthly subscription fee.

Amazon.com quietly launched an experimental search engine named A9.com, whose features include online diaries and a running history of users' searches and visits. It uses data from both Google's massive link collection and Amazon's Alexia service, which tracks web traffic.

The owners of a commercial version

of Linux changed

the software's name from "Lindows" to "Linspire," apparently to help resolve a trademark dispute. Microsoft sued Lindows, Inc. in 2001, claiming the name infringed on the "Windows" trademark.


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