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'Spyware' would be tricky to outlaw, group says

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Lawmakers have yet to get a handle on the best way to combat computer "spyware" that tracks Internet users' online activity, a nonprofit policy group said

Rather than drafting narrowly targeted legislation to outlaw specific snooping tactics, Congress should establish broad online privacy rights to protect against secret online surveillance, the Center for Democracy and Technology said.

Concern about spyware has grown over the past several years as online advertisers and song-swapping networks like Kazaa have placed programs on users' computers to monitor their activity or use their computers' processors for other activities.

Spyware can crash computers or slow their performance, and it is often difficult to ferret out. Furthermore, many users are frequently unaware that they are being monitored for commercial purposes.

Though some spyware may violate communications and computer-trespass laws, most programs are protected by agreements buried in long, detailed disclosures that users click on when they download other programs, CDT said in a report Tuesday.

Some spyware may violate deceptive-business laws, but to date the Federal Trade Communication has taken no action against spyware merchants.

"We have followed up on some allegations and to date we haven't found things that violated the law or violated individual privacy," said FTC spokeswoman Claudia Bourne-Farrell, adding that the agency took consumer privacy seriously.

Several lawmakers have introduced bills targeting spyware, but they are so broadly written that they could outlaw largely innocuous technologies like "cookies" and software-update utilities which pose little threat, CDT said.

"The slipperiness of the term 'spyware' makes it very hard to craft a definition that is precise enough for use in legislation," the report said. "For this reason, we believe it will be extremely difficult to adequately address all of the privacy concerns with spyware outside the context of general privacy legislation."

Attempts to pass a broad online privacy bill have gone nowhere in the past several years. The Senate Commerce Committee passed one version in the last session of Congress, but it never came to the floor for a vote.

Kazaa now offers a spyware-free version of its popular "peer to peer" software.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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