©07 The Media Desk
Does the word 'zwinky' actually mean 'spyware' in another language?
Outside links will open in new window.
Outside links will open in new window.
The unbelievably obnoxious commercial is everywhere now. Running sometimes three or four times in a half hour show...
Several cute cartoon characters reminiscent of any of several 1990's kids shows dress up in really cool clothes and dance out of the house to meet even more really cool kids. In the background is the repeated line at full and enhanced commercial volume repeating a few key words.
It is supposed to be free, and fun.
FREE it is not, besides being supported by online ads it collects (and sells) information about its users, and the users of the machines it is installed on, but we'll come to that in a minute.
Fun remains to be seen.
You cannot just go to the Zwinky.com site and play, or do anything. To take part you have to download an executable program onto your machine.
This is no 'Second Life' driver either. Whereas the popular online 'virtual world' is a self contained program which simply allows the game to function, the Zwinky program downloads an impressive list of 'add on' programs which run the gamut from tracking cookies to out and out spyware which collects personal information and transmits it to their servers for third parties to use. And yes, in their twenty one page user and privacy agreement, they admit it.
You may read the full Zwinky EUL and Privacy Agreement Here.
However, nobody in their target age group is going to read that nightmare. In fact, it was difficult for the Desk to sort through it. The kids are going to download and install everything the Zwinky server pushes out at them and that's it.
And then the trouble is likely to begin.
"Why? What is it? What are the Zwinky people after?"
In those twenty one pages we just mentioned, the word 'information' is used 188 times. That's One Hundred and Eighty Eight times. That's something on the order of nine occurrences per page.
It must be a very important word to them. From their Privacy Agreement:
We gather two basic types of information through the Site: "Anonymous Information" and "Personally Identifiable Information." Anonymous Information is information that does not personally identify you, such as IP address, other browser information, demographic information and information about your interests. Personally Identifiable Information is information you provide to us that specifically identifies you as an individual, such as your name, physical mailing address, email address and telephone number. Information identifying an entity other than an individual, (e.g., a corporation, partnership, joint venture and so forth), does not constitute Personally Identifiable Information and is treated as Anonymous Information.
However, all this legalese only applies to the Zwinky program and its mywebsearch toolbar host. The other piggy-back programs run separately!
The way they collect the Anonymous Information is through the use of tracking cookies and 'pixel tags' (also known as 'Web Beacons') which relay information about where you came from and where you go on the site and elsewhere on the web, and how long you stay there.
The use of the tags is disclosed later in the document. But the question must be asked, what kid is going to read and understand all that?
One of the other offers that comes with Zwinky is a personalized Horoscope.
"Well gee, that's fun!"
Let's see... they have your Name, Physical Mailing Address, and now your Date of Birth.... All they'd need is your credit card number and they're home free.
End User License Agreement (ELUA) for Zwinky.com
You see, while the Zwinky program is free, your little Zwinky person has a Zwinky world to play in. Complete with things to buy for Zwinky dollars, a Zwinky arcade with Zwinky games. And then there is Zwinky chat and Zwinky.....
Evidently a fair selection of the extras are not 'free'.
The parent company is something called IAC, their website is IAC.com. You have probably never heard of them. There is no reason you should have heard of them.
But you have heard of Ask.com (it used to be Ask Jeeves). Or maybe the Home Shopping Network, right?
Those Entertainment books full of coupons you see around the end of the year?
Maybe you've heard of LendingTree, Match.com or Udate, or even RealEstate.com.
Then you have heard of IAC.
It would seem that IAC is into everything that adults do on the web in one way or another.
And now with Zwinky they have their tentacles into the kids.
On the horizon is a 'personal finance' (read: credit card) venture with the Dow Jones company. hhhhmmmm
One of the things IAC does is collect, massage, analyze, and then sell Information.
They have to be able to target their audience down to which car wash you'd rather go to. Their audience is their bread and butter. Ask Jeeves was one of the first to target searches to the user, they did perfect it to a large extent. It is why they are still in business.
And now they have all sorts of various searching vehicles to add to the mix.
NOTE: Ask Jeeves, Ask.com, Teoma, My Way, My Search, My Web Search, iWon, Excite and MaxOnline are trademarks or registered trademarks of Ask Jeeves
From an IAC.com news page
The demographic information based on the Zwinky registration and other information gleaned from it and other sources is worth a great deal to IAC and their partners.
Face it, nobody can afford an advertising blitz by giving something away without getting something of greater value in return.
Now. What is Zwinky doing to your computer?
When you install Zwinky you get MyWebSearch. They say that up front. However, it is not immediately clear what other programs are coming in to roost on your hard drive with them.
You get SmileyCentral, the :) happy faces. A screensaver program, and more.....
From their End User Agreement
MY FUN CARDS: This provides access to free electronic greeting cards that you can personalize on the Web and send to any email address.
CURSOR MANIA: Free computer mouse cursors that allow the user to change the look of his/her default cursor to something more fun and expressive.
FUN BUDDY ICONS: Free icons that can be added to an instant messenger client.
The 'MY INFO' feature is the primary information collection device which includes the horoscope and other demographic info which IAC will find most interesting.
Well. MyWebSearch is known spyware. It is on everybody's list. And Zwinky makes no bones about it, they tell you in the user agreement that they will collect information about what you do on the web through the 'always on' toolbar whether or not you use it to search.
Don't take the Desk's word for it, here's the McAfee anti-virus people's take on it:
This is not a virus or trojan. It is a direct-marketing adware application. This kind of application generally comes bundled with another program, which usually discloses the fact that it is ad-supported. Users agree to have the Adware installed in the license agreement, although they may not realise at first that this file was packaged with the product they installed.
Network Associates Inc. nai.com McAfee Anti-Virus
Smiley Central has its fans that like to send 'emoticons' to each other. But it is not benign. Although it tends to be called malware and is viewed legally as a 'computer contaminant' that is installed without the user knowing the full ramifications of the act. And if you try to uninstall it, you may end up making things worse.
The Greeting Card feature allows may allow you to send entertaining and even funny cards to all your friends and family. But it will also allow IAC to compile a list of other known working emails that may be otherwise unpublished. And it is an even bet that to open the card that was sent your friend will have to click a button that says they agree to receive all the spam IAC and friends can send out as you and them have both established that murky 'business relationship' with them.
There are even some cases where various software, spreadsheets, word processors and other 'serious' programs will not operate with a tricked out fancy cursor. If you change the traditional mouse pointer to a spaceship or a dancing cow things may not work correctly. You the user have to decide which is more important. Also, if you uninstall the cursor program, you might even find the drivers that make your mouse work have been corrupted.
Here's the line from PC Hell about what these types of programs do to your machine.
The PCHell.com page also has removal instructions.
Most anti- spy/mal/ad/etc software, and some anti-virus software will tag these things and remove them. Some firewalls will stop them from doing their thing. Programs such as Spybot will detect the registry changes they try to make and shut them down. And then there is the chance that when your spyware remover does its work, that a kernel file (one of those mysterious DLL files in windows) will end up corrupted or deleted and some part of your operating system may not work, that or you'll end up with random error messages along the lines of "runtime error has occured, system will now shut down....".
Of course, then you won't be able to send smiley faces to people either.
In the end. The Zwinky people are right about one thing:
Not only do you have to know what your kids, and spouse, and kinfolk, and friends, and everybody else in your house is doing online, you have to know what your machine is doing online when there's nobody sitting at the keyboard.
Even better.... when you are NOT using it, turn it off.
That act alone will cut out the majority of the spam being sent out on the web by bot-infected machines. .... .... some of which may be running Zwinky.
Confused about all the various terms for bad stuff other people are trying to inflict on your computer? So was the Desk... check out http://www.viruslist.com for a good working glossary that will help clear it up.
Zwinky EUL and Privacy Agreement Here.
Outside Links Mentioned in Article.
McAfee Anti-Virus from Network Associates Inc.
http://www.viruslist.com The Glossary mentioned in the article.
End Zwinky..... we hope
The Media Desk's Urban Legend and SPAM Info Page http://www.themediadesk.com/files/urban.htm
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