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AOL security tools raise adware issues

Consumer groups very unhappy

Just days after posting details of searches made by hundreds of thousands of subscribers, AOL is in hot water again with consumer advocates. This time the issue is with the company's Active Virus Shield antivirus software, released last week.

At issue is the software's licensing agreement, which authorises AOL to gather and share data on how the software is being used and permits AOL and its affiliates to send email to users. "If you go through the installation, just as any normal user would, there is not the slightest hint of any advertising functionality or data gathering of any kind," said Eric Howes, director of malware research at antispyware vendor Sunbelt.

Active Virus Shield uses Kaspersky Lab's well-regarded antivirus software, and comes with an optional security toolbar that blocks pop-up adverts and manages passwords. The software is available for free to anyone who wishes to download it and can be found here.

Although security experts, including Howes, say Active Virus Shield does not behave in a malicious fashion or serve up unwanted adverts, some are concerned that the product's Eula (end-user licence agreement) would allow AOL to send spam or serve up adware at some point in the future. "If it actually does any of the things stated in the Eula, we would actually flag it as spyware," said Christina Olson, a project manager with Stopbadware.org.

The Active Virus Shield agreement gives AOL much broader rights to collect information and then to share that information with third parties than typical Eulas, observers said.

A prohibition against blocking adverts also caught Olson's attention. "If you have any ad-blocking software up, you're basically violating the Eula, which is ridiculous," she said.

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