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A US House subcommittee on Thursday (17 May) approved what would be the first federal law to specifically target Internet spyware.

The SPY Act, for "Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass," would oblige companies and individuals to conspicuously warn consumers before giving them a program capable of automatically transmitting information gathered from a user's computer. Though the bill carries no criminal penalties, and doesn't allows users to sue spyware merchants, anyone in the US caught uploading such a program without obtaining the consumer's consent could face civil prosecution by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

A last-minute addition to the SPY Act also prohibit keystroke logging and the display of advertisements that cannot be closed, according to Rep. Mary Bono, the bill's sponsor. "We are one step closer to restoring safety, confidence and control to consumers when using their own computers," Bono said in a statement. The bill now goes to the full Commerce committee for a vote. A companion bill in under consideration in the Senate.

Spyware, and its ignoble cousin adware, appears to be a growing online nuisance. A survey of broadband users released last summer by the National CyberSecurity Alliance found that 91 per cent of broadband consumers had some form of adware or spyware on their computers, and most were not aware of it.

In a report released last week, a free scanning tool provided by Earthlink and Webroot Software detected traces of nearly 73,000 Trojan horse installations and nearly 61,000 covert system monitoring programs in a scan of 420,000 PCs throughout the month of April. The same scans picked up 2.3 million adware programs.

Last week, security researchers found that an anonymous computer criminal was using a combination of unpatched vulnerabilities in Microsoft's Internet Explorer to forcibly install the I-Lookup adware search bar on victim's machines.

Regardless of the size of the spyware problem, support for legislative solution like the SPY Act is not universal. In April, FTC commissioner Orson Swindle argued that the commission is more effective when it's working with industry and educating consumers than enforcing "static legislation." And consumer advocates worry that the SPY Act doesn't do enough to warn users about how their data is going to be used.

"We're concerned that people are going to consent early on, and then the software can collect everything," says Ari Schwartz, associate director at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "We'd prefer to set this aside and have a more comprehensive Internet privacy bill."

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