What's Privacy Worth?

by Preston Gralla

Several years ago, Sun Microsystem's CEO Scott McNealu raised the hackles of privacy advocates everywhere, when he said of the lack of privacy on the Internet, "You already have zero privacy. Get over it."

A good portion of the world, it seems, agrees with him.

At least, that's what an article in Wired seems to say. According to the article, a surprising number of people aren't particularly worried that spyware infects their system, watches what they do, and then reports on it.

The article talked about an apparently pernicious piece of spyware called Marketscore that rides on the back of the iMesh file-sharing application. The article notes that Marketscore not only tracks what sites users visit, but can even snoop on information entered on secure Web sites, including passwords, credit card numbers, and bank account numbers.

So why aren't people worried? Because they feel it's the price you have to pay to get free software. "You have to support spyware if you're going to have free file-sharing applications. Fair's fair," one college student told Wired, and apparently a fair number of other students agree with him.

I hope this is just an odd anomaly, and that McNealy's words about privacy weren't prescient. A world in which people are willing to give up their privacy, just to get some free software, isn't a particularly appealing one.

After all, as the Firefox browser and other open source software shows, you don't have to give up anything if you want solid, free software, least of all, your very identity.

What do you think about your privacy on the Internet? Let me know.


2004-12-06 23:27:17
it's true
many people will indeed do anything to get something for free.

As a test of this a researcher several months ago went into the business district in London and offered people a free bar of chocolate in exchange for their usernames and passwords.

Unsurprising (to me and I guess the researcher) over half the people approached agreed to give away their usernames and passwords (for their company networks as well as their home ISP accounts) in exchange for something as cheap as a 90p bar of chocolate...

Another example. For years people have been able to download an adware/spyware injected version of Opera as a web browser.
Despite the fact that browsers without such "features" are available free of charge (IE, Netscape, Mozilla) and the fact that the clean version of Opera isn't that expensive people still download and use it.

Yet another example.
Even after it became known that Kazaa was heavily infested with spyware millions continue to use it to pirate music and software.
Why? Because it's free.

And many of those who do all the above are the same people screaming loudly that cookies are an invasion of privacy, IE is too easy to abuse to get malware onto their machines, etc. etc.

2004-12-09 14:18:55
And I thought that people were just ignorant.
I guess knowing what's going on is better than ignorance in some ways, but how anyone can justify installing spyware/malware knowingly baffles me. I guess it is partly ignorance, however, since there are plenty of clean alternatives to spyware infested apps.

I manage to keep my computer completely spyware free by adopting sensable surfing habits. In particular, I mostly only use open source or uncrippled freeware software, and couple pieces of commercial software which I have paid for.

That story only goes as far as my laptop. I've removed all sorts of nasties, including Marketscore, from the family desktop machine which I, thankfully, don't have the displeasure of using. Marketscore has the curious side effect of adding strange delays to Messenger conversations, presumably caused by the extra network latency.

Though, the problem is widespread. The laptops in my school's science department are infested with Gator and who know's what else. I also found Gator on other machines in the school (the popups are an obvious telltale sign) as well as apps from Gator which come bundled with the spyware. I'm tempted to email our IT technician.

Well, as the saying goes, there's another one born every day. Spyware is an easy way to make a fast buck, often to the displeasure of it's victoms.