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Creative accused of 'spyware'

It may act like a Trojan horse but it's there to help you, Creative says. Some angry users disagree
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Irate users are accusing Creative Labs, the maker of popular soundcards and music players, of spying on them.

The dispute revolves around a piece of software called newsupd.exe, installed with the software that comes with most Creative products, which many users say is connecting to the Internet without their authorisation and relaying data secretly back to Creative servers. Users say newsupd.exe installs itself on the sly, and doesn't give users the option of turning it off. Creative admits the feature needs tweaking, but says it is basically there to help users.

In an age when users are increasingly paranoid -- often with reason -- about where their personal data is being sent without their consent or knowledge, the Creative software has hit a raw nerve.

"This isn't some sleazy shareware application downloaded from God-knows-where, but legitimately-purchased hardware from a legitimate-looking company, that is installing advertising spyware along with its hardware drivers!" wrote a user on the Web site Counterexploitation (www.cexx.org). "This is a clear betrayal of user trust."

Creative admits it has received complaints about newsupd.exe, but says there is nothing to get excited about: it is only there to alert users to software and hardware upgrades. "It shouldn't interfere with anything else going on," said Franco Debonis, Creative's European brand manager for audio products. "If you're not connected to the Internet, it doesn't do anything. It checks periodically to see if the connection is live, and if it is, it initiates server pushes down to the particular user."

The idea of automatically checking for upgrades is nothing new, but the difference appears to be that Creative's product designers did not think to alert users about what was happening. The company now admits that this was a mistake, and promises that future versions of Creative software will fix the problem.

Earlier versions of newsupd.exe, which has been around for about two years, did not include an obvious option for turning the feature off, according to Debonis, though this is now much easier to find. "We fed that back to the development team. They didn't think about people who wanted to disable it," Debonis said.

Users say they are disturbed by the fact that the first they know of newsupd.exe's existence might be when their antivirus software alerts them that it is trying to access the Internet, or when it conflicts with their firewall. Some users assumed it was a piece of malicious software, while others reported that the mysterious bit of code appeared to be using up disproportionate system resources or causing system crashes.

Some users said they followed the disabling procedure to no effect. "I... checked the option to disable the news updater, but the damn thing still tries to access the Internet," wrote one user on a Creative technical support newsgroup.

Another troubling aspect of newsupd.exe is that it feeds information back to Creative Labs servers. Creative says it does not contain any personal information -- "It just says 'this banner has been clicked'."

Creative says the feature does not break privacy regulations or European privacy laws, and that the whole matter is down to a misunderstanding. Europe, Debonis noted, is more sensitive to privacy issues because regulations are stricter here.

"There is no brand issue involved," he said. "We really are thinking about this from a service perspective. We just didn't take into account the sensitivity of the European market."

He said the feature can be a valuable marketing tool: "There is some cross-selling involved. It makes sense if you have the Jukebox [MP3 player] that you might potentially want to have LiveCard [a sound card]. But there is user benefit involved."

Debonis said complaints about the feature have only started coming in recently, possibly due to the spread of broadband, always-on Internet access, which gives newsupd.exe more opportunities to activate itself.

Creative software doesn't yet notify users of the existence of newsupd.exe, but that functionality is planned for future products, Debonis said.

The feature can be turned off by locating newsupd.exe on the system, double-clicking it and following the instructions on a dialogue box. Newer versions of the PlayCenter music-playing software lets users disable newsupd.exe by right-clicking on a banner ad found in the interface.

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