Spyware is a type of computer program that oversees and tracks what users do with their computer in cyberspace, and relays this information to a separate third party. The most common type of spyware tracks internet activity, sending information about a user’s online habits to advertising agencies.
Spyware gets most of its notoriety from the fact that it installs itself on a computer, usually without the user’s consent. This presents obvious privacy issues, since spyware’s purpose is to track an individual’s computer usage habits. In more extreme cases, spyware programs can even record what a person types, allowing the discovery of secret passwords and credit card numbers. Spyware can also cause problems with a computer’s performance, or damage a computer’s operating system altogether.
Spyware poses potential problems for businesses as well. Some spyware programs make use of pop-up ads that are triggered when a user visits a particular website. This type of usage can lead to possible trademark violations and unfair competition. For example, imagine a spyware program that opens up multiple pop-up ads with a Pepsi symbol crushing a Coca-Cola can, every time a computer user visits Coca-Cola’s website.
Spyware programs themselves are not illegal, and a number of spyware developers operate businesses today. Rather, it is the way in which the spyware program is used that can lead to legal liability. The lack of user consent is what makes most spyware illegal, as unauthorized access to one’s computer is a criminal offense. However, most spyware developers attempt to gain consent by packing spyware with more commonly used programs (i.e. Kazaa, Grokster, LimeWire), hiding notice of the spyware’s existence deep within the software’s licensing agreement.
For individual users, malicious spyware can be grounds for lawsuits regarding:
- Violations of privacy
- Non-consented usage of one’s personal computer
- Possible fraud and theft of sensitive data
For businesses, malicious software can be grounds for lawsuits regarding:
- Trademark or Copyright Infringement
- Unfair trade practices and competition
- Potential property damage (Over-congested web servers and computer usage)
- Unauthorized access to trade secrets and company data
If you believe spyware is accessing your computer’s confidential information without your consent, you should contact an intellectual property attorney immediately to protect your rights. An intellectual property lawyer can not only determine whether your computer usage has been put as risk, but also inform you about any class action lawsuits regarding spyware installed on your computer.
If you are a business owner whose online advertising has been targeted by spyware programs, an business attorney can help protect your copyright and fair trade rights.