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Browser toolbars - at first a blessing, then a curse

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Starbuck

Admin & Security Team
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Feb 19, 2010
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#1
You have surely seen these notifications during the installation of a program that ask you to install a toolbar. The first specimens of this species may have been useful and popular, but nowadays there is a real deluge of senseless and annoying toolbars that breaks down onto the Internet user community. The reason behind all this is very often economy-related. This article will lay out what toolbars are and why there are so many of them by now.

The word toolbar is derived from "tool" and thus supposed to help you. A toolbar is like a tool kit for your browser that is always at hand to provide easy access to general and frequently used functions. The basic idea behind it all is good, which is why there are so many very useful toolbars. For instance, there are millions of people who use Google's Toolbar, which enables them to use the search engine without having to open their website in the first place.

For a few years now, there have been toolbars all over the place, though. If it is while setting up a new program, with a download or even while installing a driver - you are regularly asked to install one of these little toolbars. One very common specimen is the Ask Toolbar associated with the search engine Ask.com. Numerous software providers ask you to install it with their own products, among them are a lot of well-known names like the burning software Nero.



Why is that? - It is very simple. Ask offers to pay one or two dollars to the providers for every installation. Given the great number of downloads, this makes quite a lot of money and quite some cash on the side that only few company can resist. This expense pays off quite well for Ask.com, since as soon as you are using their search engine, display of ads makes their registers ring.

You may ask yourself if there is anything immoral or bad about this. Ask.com is at least within legal boundaries, as they do not oblige the users to install the toolbar. But as you can see from the picture, you have to deactivate three check boxes in order not to install the Ask Toolbar and not to change your browser's homepage and default search engine. This is not exactly what one calls unintrusive. Most of us will not read carefully the license agreement and data protection policy, either. For, by installing the toolbar, i.e. regular software, you enable Ask to access your PC and thus to collect statistical data and create user profiles.

Even big software companies do not refrain from collecting user data.

And Ask.com is widely-spread, and not at all a rare case. Even the giant software company Microsoft's search engine Bing got all eyes on it last year as the associated Bing Toolbar is suspected of stealing Google search results. From Internet Explorer 8 on, Bing has been recommended for installation, which gives access to everything that is going on in or around your browser. In a way, this enables Microsoft to track and log anything you type in for search or on any link you click. Microsoft denies this data theft of course.

If you have installed Internet Explorer, we are quite sure you also accepted this collection of data - by accepting to participate in the "Consumer Experience Program", i.e. Microsoft's program that aims at improving their usability. This check box is activated by default and sounds at first quite promising. On the other hand, you allow Microsoft to monitor all inputs and settings in your browser and save them for their purposes.

If even big software providers do not refrain from this kind of behavior, you may wonder what it is with all these small toolbars. The number of websites that offer their own toolbar has been increasing at the speed of light: no matter if it is online shops that promise you more simple purchases, different forums or supposedly useful applications like weather gadgets or phone books. The good news: the number of pure malware or adware toolbars has been decreasing by far. On the one hand, this may be due to the fact that there is no longer as much money in advertising as there used to be some years ago, and on the other hand, due to the fact that pop-up ads are not exactly unremarkable. If ever you see lots of pop-up windows opening the whole time, you may very well start to be skeptical and get your hands on a virus scanner.

This may be a little unethical, but it is a barely legal and therefore less visible way of making much more money. We are sure you are aware of the first possibility that consists in logging user data. No matter if it is justified with technical improvements, for selling statistical data or in order to offer you specific products. The range of possibilities is huge, and the implementation will very well pay off. Some may take it even further by not only logging your browser activities, but also logging your activities in social networks plus your login details.




MyWay Toolbar, generally classified as adware, even asks you to enter your Facebook and e-mail password - of course in order to make your life as a user easier, this goes without saying. MyWay may claim that the new version does not log any data, but one way or another, we recommend you not to use such toolbars and the integrated Facebook and e-mail functions in particular. For, even if there is no abuse intended, there may still be a security risk. Improperly written source code may be enough to open up your PC to hackers.


Source and full article:
http://www.emsisoft.com/en/kb/articles/tec120110/
 
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