Spyware may be next Australian government target

Australia’s federal government may look at adware and spyware as a follow-up to its legislative actions against spam. On the other hand, some caution should be attached to “promises” in the run-up to an election — the event currently dominating all Australian news.

Paul Ducklin of security company Sophos PLC approached IT minister Helen Coonan after her address to a media seminar and flagged the spyware problem. An official accompanying her quickly said, yes, the government was aware of the issue, and would start to look at it when (and if) re-elected. This was likely to be done by the same team that evolved the antispam legislation, he said.

Ducklin reckons this will be an even more intractable problem than legislating against spam, because it involves judging the degree of a user’s informed consent. Adware is usually delivered as adjunct to a useful product that the user will download and enthusiastically install — without too close a look at the agreement to which they are being asked to confirm with a mouse-click.

Such agreements often contain wording allowing “updates” to the program to be loaded automatically onto the user’s machine when it is connected to the Internet, and allowing other programs that the vendor thinks might appeal to the user to be similarly loaded.

So the luckless customer is trapped into acquiring software of “an increasing degree of shonkiness” until their system is compromised, Ducklin says.

Adware and spyware agreements have been known to include clauses permitting use of the computer as a relay for outward e-mail and allowing onsale of details enabling other vendors to access the machine without explicit authority from the original user, Ducklin says.

The trouble is, the vendor will always be able to point to the click-signed agreement and argue that the user consented to everything that has been done.

“It’s a question of a legal commodity, usually called ‘adware’, which shades into those illegal things called ‘spyware’, and it’s very difficult to draw the line,” says Ducklin.

Senator Coonan used her set speech to announce the coalition government’s IT policy. This concentrates on affirmation of a number of existing policies for support of the industry — the words “keep” and “continue” figure largely in the policy document. The most prominent new undertaking is a study into the factors preventing teleworking.

While capable telework technology is there, there are still significant people, relationship and attitude problems to be overcome, Coonan says. “A study by Sweeney Research found that half of Australian management wouldn’t trust their workers to work away from the office and 75 per cent of co-workers think that colleagues who work out of the office may not be doing work at all.” The taskforce will look at the causes of these attitudes and ways of overcoming them, Coonan says.

She promised continued funding for broadband, maintaining the A$107.8 million (US$75.2 million) Higher-Bandwidth Incentive Scheme (Hibis), which subsidizes rural broadband development so users pay a similar price to that paid by urban customers. However, further broadband announcements are reserved for the communications policy.

Delegates to the seminar remarked afterwards that talk of “broadband” in Australia, as in New Zealand, is misleading. “What they usually mean is 256k bps (bits per second) down and 128k bps up, or 512k bps down and 256k bps up if you’re lucky,” said one.

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