Government turns spotlight on spyware

Scrutiny of spyware in Australia is intensifying after the federal government released a discussion paper just days after a minor party's anti-spyware Bill was debated in parliament. The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Helen Coonan, said the discussion paper -- released Friday -- sought feedback from the public to "assist in developing a practical response that will target spyware in a way that does not constrain the use of beneficial or legitimate software".

Scrutiny of spyware in Australia is intensifying after the federal government released a discussion paper just days after a minor party's anti-spyware Bill was debated in parliament.

The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Helen Coonan, said the discussion paper -- released Friday -- sought feedback from the public to "assist in developing a practical response that will target spyware in a way that does not constrain the use of beneficial or legitimate software".

"We want to hear from the Australian public so we can all have a common understanding of what spyware is and how it affects us," Senator Coonan said in a statement.

The Democrats earlier this month introduced legislation to parliament that would see anyone convicted of installing spyware or cookies without user permission on a computer face imprisonment of up to two years.

The government defined spyware in its discussion paper as software which is "secretly installed on a computer and takes things from it without the permission or knowledge of the user." Those "things" include personal or business information.

The paper asks for opinion on what can be considered as spyware and what aspects of spyware cause most concern.

It raises questions on whether a program can be considered spyware even if the information collected is "not used to commit a crime". The paper also asks whether cookies are considered as spyware.

"It is important that online users can identify dangerous spyware and remove it. The Australian government is working with industry and other interested groups to identify how we can minimise the impact of spyware," Coonan said.

The paper said that using the same complaints and reporting mechanisms employed for other crimes, there can be a "successful enforcement of laws against spyware that may lead to a reduction in spyware attacks".

"Individuals and businesses need to know where to go to complain about spyware and which agencies have enforcement responsibility for particular spyware behaviours," the paper said.

However, because of the covert nature of spyware installation, the paper said enforcement can be difficult. The discussion paper is asking for suggestions on how "individuals and businesses can be better informed of the coverage of Australian laws in terms of spyware, and of the agencies responsible for enforcing those laws".

The paper asks for suggestions on what technical measures would be appropriate for an ongoing solution to spyware.

"While the e-security industry is responding to the challenge of spyware with a range of software tools, a broader community response may be warranted. This response may include industry collaboration on best practice, increased consumer awareness, and improved international cooperation," Senator Coonan said.

In August 2004, the government initiated a legislative review "focusing on the misuse of spyware technology rather than the technology itself".

The review addressed issues such as deceptive conduct, Internet banking fraud, unauthorised access, content modification, and so on.

In March 2005, the review found that "the most serious and culpable uses of spyware are covered under existing legislation".

The government will be holding public consultation workshops in May and early June where interested parties can discuss the issues raised in the paper.