Friday April 7, 2000
"OptOut" and the Aureate Media Controversy
by Steve Gibson, Gibson Research Corporation

The Internet community was recently rocked by rumors and reports that a popular system for creating advertiser-supported software was, in fact, functioning as an Internet "Trojan horse". (CNET's 02/28 summary story.) The rumors stated that the unwitting user's computer was being "inventoried", the system registry was being scanned, and all manner of personal, private, and confidential information was being sent out across the Internet for collection by Aureate Media Corporation (pronounced: or'-ee-ate).

Although a complete technical analysis is still pending (see below), a preliminary examination of Aureate's web site and their privacy policy statements should immediately dispel most concerns about the company's intrinsic "evilness".

That said, it is certainly the case that users should be made more aware than they have been of the potential privacy and security implications associated with the use of Aureate-hosted advertisement supported software. As you will see below, in several cases of installations using this system:

As noted above, several problem areas have already been identified: Insufficient Pre-Installation Disclosure: Not a single one of the many Aureate-carrying programs I've installed and examined has mentioned the fact of their use of Aureate's advertising support in their license agreement! This appears to be in violation of Aureate's stated licensing policy, which Aureate appears to be grossly under-enforcing on behalf of their unwitting "users". Only after the Aureate software is started by the hosting program, does Aureate's dialog present any indication to the user that they have already installed "advertiser supported software" onto their system. By that time it is too late (see next item). Inadequate (nonexistent) Removal: Not a single one of the many Aureate-carrying programs I've installed and examined has made any attempt whatsoever to remove the Aureate "Spyware" (I use the term provisionally, but it's beginning to seem fitting) from the system upon that program's uninstallation and removal. Consequently, not only aren't we told beforehand that we're installing a background monitoring and behavior reporting system, but once we have been told, the user has no reasonable means for removing this software from their system.

Inadequate Privacy Statement: While Aureate's formal privacy statement appears adequate on the surface, their relationships with known personal privacy violators, such as DoubleClick, against which formal legal charges are pending seems to be sufficient cause for concern.

Even more worrisome is the fact that, while Aureate's privacy statement makes a lot of noise about how their collected information is deliberately anonymous (i.e. they don't know who you are), they also function as a paid software licensing provider. Therefore, the moment a user registers their advertiser-supported software with a credit card it's conceivable that all anonymity would be lost since Aureate could form a clear association between the user's name, address, and personal financial data and their machine which has been previously given a unique ID for use in Aureate's demographic user profiling and tracking. NOTE: That in my recent meeting with them I pointedly raised this question and was told that this has never been done. Operation even when host program is NOT running: The Aureate system is so invasive that it actively operates and communicates across the Internet even when the advertising-host program is not running! Clever integration with the Windows Internet browser awakens the Aureate software system so that it can share the machine's Internet connection whenever the user is surfing. Presumably this is to allow it to have more time for advertisement downloading and background demographic profiling . . . but having this system busily transacting on the Internet when its hosting program is not even running seems excessive in the extreme. Continued operation AFTER host removal: As if all of the preceding wasn't worrisome enough, in several instances the full and complete removal of the hosting application left the Aureate profiling and demographic engine intact and running through its Internet browser integration. This really pushes the limits: You download and install advertising-hosted software without first being informed that it is such, or that it will be secretly profiling your habits in the background. Due to the option to suppress demographics questioning for some time (see next item) you continue to be uninformed of this background activity. You then remove the hosting software, but the Aureate data collection system continues running, consuming your Internet connection bandwidth, profiling your activities, and contacting foreign servers through its integration with your browser . . . presumably forever.

Full stealth operation through deferred demographic profiling: As an option, the Aureate system can defer the presentation of its demographic profiling questionnaire. I witnessed this in several cases of first-time hosting application installation where the Aureate system appeared to be missing. But instead it was running with full stealth, collecting data and communicating with its remote servers without ever first presenting its demographics questionnaire. Since each user is "branded" with a unique user ID, they can collect and associate demographics at any later time.

Which Software Carries the Aureate Baggage?
The Aureate website lists these 279 separate programs as being hosts to their advertiser sponsorship technology.

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