When adware goes bad

OK, granted, it was never good to begin with, but if Microsoft gets their way, it’s about to become a whole lot worse. A link to this article has just been sent to me, courtesy of my Friendly Network Admin – and I’m shamelessly copying and pasting the article content here.

It’s such a tremendously bad idea that it’s almost bound to succeed. Microsoft has filed another patent, this one for an “advertising framework” that uses “context data” from your hard drive to show you advertisements and “apportion and credit advertising revenue” to ad suppliers in real time. Yes, Redmond wants to own the patent on the mother of all adware.The application, filed in 2006, describes a multi-faceted, robust ad-delivering system that lives on a “user computer, whether it’s part of the OS, an application or integrated within applications.”“Applications, tools, or utilities may use an application program interface to report context data tags such as key words or other information that may be used to target advertisements,” says the filing. “The advertising framework may host several components for receiving and processing the context data, refining the data, requesting advertisements from an advertising supplier, for receiving and forwarding advertisements to a display client for presentation, and for providing data back to the advertising supplier.”

The adware framework would leave almost no data untouched in its quest to sell you stuff. It would inspect “user document files, user e-mail files, user music files, downloaded podcasts, computer settings, computer status messages (e.g., a low memory status or low printer ink),” and more. How could we have been so blind as to not see the marketing value in computer status messages?

The software would also free advertising from its traditional browser yoke. “A word processor may display a banner ad along the top of a window, similar to a toolbar, while a graphical ad may be displayed in a frame associated with the application. A digital editor for photos or movies may support video-based advertisements,” the patent application says.

The patent application, first unearthed by InformationWeek, gives the impression that your software would have more control over the advertising than you would. “An e-mail client may specify that ads from competitors must be excluded, that its own display client must be used… (that) no more than 4 ads per hour are allowed, and that only text or graphical… advertisements are supported.” The patent makes no mention of any method by which an actual user might exert control, nor does it mention very real privacy or security concerns.

That’s okay. It’s still a good thing. It says so right in the application: “The ability to derive and process context data from local sources rather than monitor interactions with a remote entity, such as a server, benefits both consumers and advertisers by delivering more tightly targeted advertisements. The benefit to the user is the perception that the ads are more relevant, and therefore, less of an interruption. The benefit to the advertiser is better focus and a higher chance of conversion to a sale.”

The patent is a fascinating exercise in advertising delivery systems. But surely that’s all it is—an exercise. No way anyone would ever actually make a thing like this. Right?

Right? Wrong! If anyone is going to make something like this, it will be Microsoft doing it. It surely wouldn’t be difficult to modify the search indexer in Vista to send information on the content on our files back to base camp, and I’m sure you’d see this creep in sooner or later, disguised as a “security update”.

There are some rather worrying questions that need to be addressed here. Firstly, how can being spammed with ads be seen as a good thing for the consumer? If anything, too much advertising tends to put me off the product rather than make me rush out to buy it. Secondly, will we be able to turn all of this advertising off, or will it be forced upon us? I can imagine companies wanting to turn this off, as being bombarded with ads (even if it is only 4 ads per hour) can only hurt productivity – which could cost Microsoft if people move over to Linux because of it. Thirdly, privacy and ethics come into the picture here. It is just downright unethical to spy on users and spam them with unwanted advertising. Unfortunately, it seems that in today’s capitalist world, profit is more important than ethics. Just look at Telkom, for example.

And here’s an interesting one. Will security software classify this as adware, and if so, will they try to disable it? We could have an interesting situation if a piece of security software classifies the operating system that it runs under as a virus.

The day that this comes to fruition is the day that I uninstall Windows and permanently move over to Linux (instead of me just having it on my dev box) – even if it means the end of gaming for me.

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2 Responses to When adware goes bad

  1. jerith says:

    What do you need your Windows box for besides gaming? I’ve lived for years in an entirely open-source world…

  2. Ron2K says:

    Some .NET software development when I’m working from home and some music creation when I feel the urge – other than that, that’s pretty much it.