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USA: profitable espionage

4 February 2011

RapLeaf, a US-based company, has been successfully working in the area of social network monitoring (SMM) for several years and has accumulated significant experience in collecting and analyzing these data. In other words, the core of this business is the collection of comprehensive information about Internet users and selling it to interested third parties.

At the moment, RapLeaf’s database contains information about a huge number of uses – over one billion.

The main purpose of this information is obvious: ads and improvement of advertising efficiency through more accurate targeting. Ironically, these services are especially popular among politicians and public figures.

The company even got involved in a minor political scandal at the end of the past year when Wall Street Journal reporters noticed a rapid growth of the amount of finely targeted ads served to specific users. An investigation conducted by WSJ revealed that Jim Bender, a republican candidate, used RapLeaf’s services during his election campaign.

From a legal standpoint, RapLeaf has no right to store users’ names in its databases, but it’s not particularly important at the moment: the law does not prohibit storing the identifiers of users’ social network accounts that can be used to obtain actual users’ names.

Apparently, this data is not mined from social networks only. When a user registers on one of RepLeaf’s affiliate sites, it sets a user cookie that enables its owners to quickly and reliably collect information about this user.

Note that such monitoring activities can and are used for “positive” and “peaceful” purposes as well. For instance, there is a project that uses similar methods and aims at creating a system capable of recognizing the behavioral patterns of people with signs of depression who can potentially commit a suicide or hurt others.


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Lawsuit against a porn site: eavesdropping on visitors

1 February 2011

It’s not a secret that a lion’s share of viruses and other types of malware are contracted on sites featuring adult content – erotic and pornographic materials. However, major publishers rarely cross this line, as the risk of losing sales and reputation is too high.

Mainstream Media International, the owner of YouPorn, a popular porn “tube”, chose another way of making money on its visitors: theft of the users’ browsing history.

These activities became the ground for a collective lawsuit against the company filed by site visitors accusing the company of eavesdropping and violation of privacy. The lawsuit specifically stated that all monitoring was intentional and that the JavaScript that copied browsing history records was obfuscated.

Obfuscation is a method of making the source code of a program unreadable and extremely hard to analyze while completely preserving its functionality.

Information collected using such methods has its price and this price is quite high. Knowing what sites users visited and what content they viewed allows companies to create better targeted paid products or services.

As a rule, such statistical data are purchased by advertising companies and ad networks interested in improving the accuracy of their campaigns and serving more relevant ads.

If the suit is satisfied, Mainstream Media International can be seriously punished for violating a number of laws, including the federal computer fraud and abuse statute, the computer crimes law of California, the competition and consumer rights laws.

Is reading your wife’s email a crime?

20 January 2011

Most of us see nothing criminal in a situation where one of the spouses reads the other’s email or SMS messages. Jealous and insecure types periodically peeked into their spouses’ pockets centuries before computers and cell phones were invented.

However, this situation may drastically change in the US thanks to their precedent system and a trial taking place these days.

The wife of the defendant, 33-year-old Leon Walker, used her husband’s laptop. Apparently, it wasn’t hard for him to steal the password for her Gmail account. When the wife wasn’t home, Leon periodically read her mail.

When he discovered that she was going to go back to her ex-husband, they had a fight and he told her how he got this information.

The woman called the police and accused her husband of breaking into her email account. Despite their relationship, the prosecution insisted on 5 years for the husband for violating privacy laws. Lawyers estimate his chances of clearing himself of the charge as fairly low.

If Walker eventually gets convicted, an important precedent will be created that will be used by judges in similar cases in the future. And there can be a quite a few of them.

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Developers of “spyware” software forced to yield

11 January 2011

The conflict between CyberSpy Software and the US Federal Trade Commission has been settled outside the courtroom. The conflict was caused by the developer’s violation of fair trade rules during the sales of RemoteSpy, its keylogging tool.

RemoteSpy was positioned as a comprehensive and impossible-to-detect spyware tool that was supplied with detailed installation instructions, including those for unauthorized installation.

The program is a typical keylogger with all the features of this type of programs: discreet interception of key presses, creation of screenshots, logging of IM chats and browsing history.

Despite the developers’ efforts, the program is still classified by many anti-virus tools as potentially dangerous spyware. For example, Kaspersky Labs software identifies it as riskware — a program capable of inflicting damage if used for illegal purposes.

The FTC forbade the use of provocative ad statements inciting users to use the program for illegal purposes. Consumers must be informed in advance about the responsibility for misusing this kind of software.

On the other hand, products must identify themselves in the system and have a functional installer with an option that allows the user to cancel the installation process. This will make illegal use highly problematic and won’t be an obstruction to using the program for legal purposes.

Once CyberSpy Software made the necessary changes in the product, the FTC allowed the company to resume the sales of RemoteSpy.