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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Spyware: Background and Policy Issues for Congress

Patricia Moloney Figliola
Specialist in Internet and Telecommunications Policy

The term "spyware" generally refers to any software that is downloaded onto a computer without the owner's or user's knowledge. Spyware may collect information about a computer user's activities and transmit that information to someone else. It may change computer settings, or cause "pop-up" advertisements to appear (in that context, it is called "adware"). Spyware may redirect a Web browser to a site different from what the user intended to visit, or change the user's home page. A type of spyware called "keylogging" software records individual keystrokes, even if the author modifies or deletes what was written, or if the characters do not appear on the monitor. Thus, passwords, credit card numbers, and other personally identifiable information may be captured and relayed to unauthorized recipients.

Some of these software programs have legitimate applications the computer user wants. They obtain the moniker "spyware" when they are installed surreptitiously, or perform additional functions of which the user is unaware. Users typically do not realize that spyware is on their computer. They may have unknowingly downloaded it from the Internet by clicking within a website, or it might have been included in an attachment to an electronic mail message (e-mail) or embedded in other software.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a consumer alert on spyware in October 2004. It provided a list of warning signs that might indicate that a computer is infected with spyware, and advice on what to do if it is. Additionally, the FTC has consumer information on spyware that includes a link to file a complaint with the commission through its "OnGuard Online" website

Several states have passed spyware laws, but there is no specific federal law and no legislation has been introduced thus far in the 111th Congress.

Date of Report: July 20, 2010
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: RL32706
Price: $29.95

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