Adware - Are Downloads Safe

by : S. Housley

Adware, Should I be Afraid?

Developers offering downloads are paying the price for the malformed truths that have been put forth regarding downloads. While not a political campaign the smears are ever present in the adware arena.

Years ago developers saw they could monetize freeware that was becoming expensive to host. Developers began working with Ad Networks such as the former Aureate and Conducent, who imbedded advertisements in the software. The software in many cases phoned home retrieving ads. In other cases adverts were imbedded directly into the download only being removed when the software was registered. Many well known software companies, including Netscape distributed ad supported versions, which allowed users to use the software for free. Developers were compensated either by install or the number of ads served. Advertisers welcomed new revenue streams to reach potential customers.

Adware or advertising-supported software is any software application in which advertisements are displayed while the program is running. These applications include additional code that displays the ads in pop-up windows or through a bar that appears on a computer screen. Adware helps recover program development costs, and helps to hold down the price of making the application for the user, often making it free of charge. As a result of the AdWare revenue programmers were motivated to write maintain, and upgrade valuable ad-enabled software. Adware was a great consumer trade off, so were did it all go wrong?

Unbeknownst to the developers a handful of ad serving companies were logging and profiling the surfing habits of those who had downloaded the ad-enabled software. After downloading free software, the new adware companies delivered pop-up and pop-under ads based on the consumers surfing interests. Adware has been criticized for including code that tracks a user's surfing habits, email address and personal information, which are passed to third parties, without the user's authorization or knowledge. This was the downfall of the ad serving technology and ad-enabled software.

In many cases consumers rightfully believe they have been and are being spied on, which prompted an outcry from privacy advocates. Adware is not a virus and may not be detected by anti-virus scanning programs. It does not spread the same way as most viruses spread. Many users do not know they are downloading a free program along with adware onto their computer. The lack of disclosure tarnished reputations of many well known, but misfortunate developers and software companies. The collapse of a number of venture backed ad-serving companies including Aureate and Conducent.

Fast forward to today. Few applications are now ad enabled. Those that are generally follow strict disclosure guidelines. Some developers opt to insert static (not changing) ads for other applications in their product line, into free versions, but these ads do not change and there is no record of what ads are clicked. Freeware can therefore be used free of charge and there is no evaluation time period as with shareware. Freeware is also often a basic or stripped down version of the shareware version. Developers make money off ads or those who want to upgrade from the free version. There are also developers who provide freeware out of principle, occasionally asking for a donation. The majority of freeware that employs the use of imbedded advertisements are provided in the true spirit of adware without the intent to track users, but just to be safe consumers should read the fine print.