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Sears admits to joining spyware biz

On page 10 of 54-page diatribe

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A Harvard researcher has accused one of America's biggest retailers of sneaking privacy-stealing spyware from ComScore onto customers' machines.

Sears Holding Corporation, owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Kmart, makes the pitch in an email sent to people shortly after they provide their address at Sears.com. Clicking the "Join" button invokes a dialog that requests the person's name, address and household size before installing ComScore spyware that monitors every site visited on the computer.

Sears' leap into the spyware business was first documented by Computer Associates researcher Benjamin Googins, who determined the notice to end users was inadequate. Yesterday, Harvard researcher Ben Edelman weighed in and came to largely the same conclusion.

It's not that Sears fails to notify users it intends to spy on them. Indeed, the email sent to users states that the application "monitors all of the internet behavior that occurs on the computer on which you install the application, including...filling a shopping basket, completing an application form, or checking your...personal financial or health information."

The rub is that this unusually frank warning comes on page 10 of a 54-page privacy statement that is 2,971 words long. Edelman, who is a frequent critic of spyware companies, said the Sears document fails to meet standards established by the Federal Trade Commission when it settled with Direct Revenue and Zango over the lack of disclosure about the extent of their snoopware.

"The Sears SHC installation of ComScore falls far short of these rules," Edelman writes. "The limited SHC disclosure provided by email lacks the required specificity as to the nature, purpose, and effects of the ComScore software."

He also criticizes the Sears installation because it identifies the software as "VoiceFive" and later claims it's coming from a company called TMRG, Inc." even though a packet sniffer confirms the software belongs to ComScore.

"If SHC used the company name 'ComScore' or the product name 'RelevantKnowledge,' users could run a search at any search engine," he argues. "These confusing name-changes fit the trend among spyware vendors."

Responding to the initial CA blog post, a Sears vice president vigorously defends the practice, saying the retailer "goes to great lengths to describe the tracking aspect" of the software. He also claims a progress bar during the installation of the software gives users an easy way to back out if they change their minds, but Edelman said no such bar was displayed during his tests. ®

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