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Researcher: Cingular, Travelocity still in spyware net

Just weeks after reaching a settlement with New York's attorney general, AT&T's Cingular division and Travelocity.com are again being accused of having ties to spyware companies.
On Tuesday, antispyware advocate Benjamin Edelman posted research showing how Travelocity and Cingular ads placed by spyware and adware programs have cropped up recently.
The findings appear to show that the two companies have broken agreements they reached with the New York Attorney General in late January, under which they agreed to work with adware providers that followed strict terms of service.
"Despite their duties to the [New York attorney general], both Cingular and Travelocity have failed to sever their ties with spyware vendors," Edelman wrote in a Tuesday blog posting.
Cingular and Travelocity also paid fines of $35,000 and $30,000 respectively to settle an investigation into their use of DirectRevenue's adware, which did not provide proper notice of its data monitoring features and was difficult to remove, according to the attorney general's office.
This marked the first time that an investigation had targeted advertisers instead of the software makers, and it was taken as a sign by some that U.S. authorities may be taking a harder stance against the problem.
Priceline.com was also targeted by the New York attorney general, but it appears to have cleaned up its act, Edelman said in a Wednesday interview. Edelman is a graduate student at Harvard University's Department of Economics who is well known for documenting the spyware industry.
The connection between spyware and online advertisers can be difficult to track. Web advertising is powered by a Byzantine network of advertising affiliates that pay partners for delivering visitors, allowing legitimate advertisers to claim ignorance when their ads are delivered by unethical operators, sometimes called "rogue affiliates."
"It's a sordid little business," said Eric Howes, director of malware research with antispyware vendor Sunbelt Software. "Money starts at the top from respectable blue chip companies that are placing ads, and it comes out in the bottom in gangs that are running botnets. And that's totally unacceptable," he said.
For example, Edelman's research showed how Travelocity's ads came to be delivered using ad-delivering software called Fullcontext. Fullcontext sent traffic to the Yieldx ad network, which in turn sold it to a company called Vizi Media, which placed the Travelocity ad.
Fullcontexts's software is identified as adware by Sunbelt's products. It can be downloaded without end-user consent, and it does not identify itself as the source of the ads it delivers, Howes said. These two characteristics put it in violation of Travelocity and Cingular's agreement with the New York attorney general.
Fullcontext is also being used to deliver Cingular ads, Edelman said.
Travelocity issued a statement Tuesday saying that it has suspended the ad campaigns Edelman has identified and is "aggressively investigating these claims to determine if there is a third party inappropriately serving our ads." Cingular's representative did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
According to Edelman, Travelocity's investigation should have already taken place. "It's all in a day's work for an advertising professional," he said. "This is their job. To supervise the people they're buying ads from."

2007-03-15

 

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