Thursday, May 13, 2010

Facebook users, beware

I love Facebook. You could probably say I'm addicted to it. I've found it can be a great networking/marketing tool (I have a bunch of romance novel fans who follow me on Facebook and that's helped beef up my book sales, for example). Plus it's a great way to keep up with friends and family that you rarely see in person. Not to mention get into interesting random discussions about random topics.

But Facebook has a dark side, too. It's a free site (for now), but the people who run it have to pay for things somehow, so they use advertising. And Facebook has been getting criticized lately for continually changing it's "privacy" (I use the term loosely) policies so it can have more leeway when it comes to tracking what Facebook users do online (so they can then sell that data to marketers/advertisers). And as such, there are a lot of "applications" floating around on Facebook that pretend to be fun little games and quizzes, but are really spyware apps designed to track and monitor all your Web browsing. (Surprisingly enough, despite the fact that marketing spyware usually acts like a virus on your computer, it's usually perfectly legal to spread, unlike hacker viruses).

The other day I made the mistake of taking one of those innocuous-looking Facebook "quizzes" and my computer has been behaving strangely ever since. First my Gmail and Google Calendar accounts started behaving strangely, with emails and email attachments getting corrupted, and appointments mysteriously disappearing off my Google calendar. Then my Internet Explorer browser window would shut itself down and restart itself right when I was in the middle of doing something. And then yesterday, the RSS feed widget on my desktop I use to track new content on some of my favorite blogs and news sites kept rebooting itself and sending me a popup message "You have new content" several times an hour, even when there was nothing new in my feed. And then when I closed the popup for the bazillionth time, my computer shut itself down.

That's when I figured out something was really wrong (and not just some random annoying Windows Vista system bugs). I ran a McAfee scan, and found some spyware/malware embedded in Internet Explorer and my RSS feed functionality---probably some kind of marketing spyware designed to track what kinds of sites I browse and then target advertising to me accordingly.

These online marketing types think that what they're doing is innocent enough (and they work hard to convince Congress of that fact) but the truth is, they're really doing a lot of damage. I wasted three hours trying to fix this late last night. And that's three hours I'll never get back.

I wish I could afford a Mac so I wouldn't have to deal with this at all.


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