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House Panel Probes Spyware

Both the House and Senate have introduced bills to limit the unwanted applications placed on users' PCs without their permission or knowledge.

The House of Representatives on Thursday held a hearing on spyware, the newest computer security problem getting the attention of lawmakers.

The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, chaired by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, took testimony from and asked questions of a panel of industry and government agency witnesses, including representatives from Microsoft, EarthLink, and the Federal Trade Commission.

"It's reprehensible for someone to download software to trick us into revealing details about our private lives," said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R.-Fla., in an opening statement before the committee.

Spyware is the term used to describe the small applications that are planted on PCs without the user's permission or knowledge from file-sharing software, Web sites, and E-mail messages. They're typically used to track a surfer's online activity, and can be used to capture keystrokes and copy personal data from hard drives and transmit it to attackers.

Like the Senate, where a trio of lawmakers have introduced a bill to limit spyware, the House has introduced legislation that would require that consumers receive a conspicuous notice prior to downloading spyware. House bill 2929, dubbed "The Safeguard Against Privacy Invasion Act," or SPI Act, was sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono, R.-Calif.

"I've told Congresswoman Bono that her bill is the starting point, not an end point," Barton said. "We do intend to do something about this. We don't let people wander around our homes uninvited, and when we have guests that overstay their welcome, we ask them to leave. You can't do that with spyware."

Barton and others on the committee said that they would work with the Senate to craft a bipartisan bill to stymie spyware.

Spyware is a serious problem, not only for consumers, but also for the industry, said Jeffrey Friedberg, Microsoft's director of Windows privacy. "Half of the support calls for Windows relate to spyware," he noted. "Spyware is a multimillion-dollar expense for the industry."

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