Paying the Price for Free Music

A few months back, in an attempt to raise the general awareness of a new breed of computer infestation, we wrote an article on spyware. At the time we noted that many popular file sharing applications come with a hidden payload, stealth applications called spyware. Recent events bring this practice back into the lime light.

Noted industry security pundit Steve Gibson describes spyware as "any software which employs a user's Internet connection in the background (the so-called "backchannel") without their knowledge or explicit permission." Most notably, these purposes include displaying not-so-random pop-up banner ads while you surf the Internet, monitoring your behavior online and reporting this information back to centralized servers, and even making you a part of larger network of users whose spare computing power and hard drive space can be harnessed and resold to other companies.

It is this latter practice that recently cast a dark shadow on the popular Napster replacement, KaZaA. In the past month, it was revealed that Internet users installing KaZaA's file sharing application were unwittingly installing another application by Brilliant Digital Entertainment.

As this CNET article notes, KaZaZ gave Brilliant Digital access to millions of computers. They intended to use these for the purpose of hosting and distributing other companies' content, in effect, using your computer's resources and your Internet connection to serve ads and music. They also discuss using your spare computer power to perform complicated business tasks.

This is by far the lowest of the low when it comes to the spyware included in popular applications. However, these applications have numerous other hidden costs resulting from spyware. Spyware, in general, tends to be poorly written software. Why? Who knows? Perhaps it is because the effort seems to be focussed on hiding the application rather than developing a real product. Or, maybe it is because many of these applications attempt to integrate themselves into core parts of the operating system so that they can better track our movements online.

Whatever the case, we see one computer after the next come in the door with problems that can be directly attributed to spyware applications, including slow Internet connections, frequent disconnects, system hangs on shut down, slow computers, out of resources errors, etc. The effect of spyware is detrimental and, often, it is not easily fixed. The result: mounting computer repair bills.

The number one culprit is file sharing applications. And--lets be honest here--we're talking about software which allow users to swap music. A post-Napster plethora of these applications has sprung up. Most can be used for free. Why? Because when you click the "I Agree" button on the EULA screen, you consent to let them install all these other goodies.

So, who are we talking about? Who are the biggest offenders. Here's a short list compiled in a few minutes of Internet surfing. It includes the name of the application and some of the spyware each application is known to install.


KaZaA LimeWire Grokster Audiogalaxy iMesh: Conducent/Timesink WinMX SongSpy

As noted in the previous article, there are applications which you can download and install for free which will eliminate spyware. However, in most cases, this breaks the software that installs the spyware as well. In addition, many of the spyware applications are being programmed to break the spyware remover applications. So, though you can remove the spyware yourself, it is not for the faint at heart, which takes us back to computer repair bills. So, I ask, what is the price of free music? It certainly isn't free.

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