I remember the days when I used download.com to grab utilities and shareware, never really questioning why I used download.com. All I knew is that it was safe and fast, usually appearing as a top search result in Google and it was always available. Unfortunately, CBS Interactive found that it would be monetarily advantageous to bundle downloads in their “CNET installer” which also aims to provide users with a number of “free” and supposedly useful toolbars or CNET’s own “techtracker” update software.
From a security perspective, this is no bueno. Many users happily enjoy clicking the installer’s “Next” button, blindly accepting EULAs and other conditions. However, when I notice something out of the ordinary, let’s say an advertisement for a toolbar or perhaps a request to change my home page, I stop. Some users might not, though – I’m guessing the majority of the population – and unfortunately, they are the ones in the forums asking for help to remove WildTangent, Babylon Toolbar or wondering why their default search engine is Bing. Not only is this annoying, but it is dangerous. Adding unnecessary software increases the attack surface of a system. The user is entirely unaware of what vulnerabilities, or worse – spyware, lies within some random toolbar that was bundled with their favorite ISO mounting software or with the Java installer. All they want is what they came for, whether that is Nmap or Adobe Reader or a My Little Pony screensaver.
Now, when I am given a download.com link or must use download.com because they’re the only ones that have a certain installer, I cringe. Why did they disrupt the unspoken agreement that anything I download from them will be bloatware free? I feel slighted. Used. I had hoped that they would never become one of those software repositories that felt the need to “bundle”… to “value-add”. I thought that being the 174th most visited site, according to Alexa, would encourage them to continue their policy of being adware free, but by the very nature of their installer, they have failed.
Unfortunately, you see this in a lot of different places, including popular software like Oracle (Java + Ask Toolbar), Adobe (Reader + McAfee Security Scan *YAWN*), Foxit Reader (Foxit Reader + Ask Toolbar) and Trillian (Trillian IM client + [insert shady video downloader or rebate software here] + Ask Toolbar). Java, Reader and Foxit have bundled third-party software that is installed by default, whereas Trillian explicitly forces the user to choose between “Accept” and “No Thanks”, which adds just a dash of confusion to the software soup. I remember Firefox used to do this as well with the Google Toolbar, but that has been discontinued in more ways than one. In addition to Firefox, Skype had included Google Toolbar with their installer but seeing as they are now owned by Redmond, this has gone the way of the Dodo.
Bundling bloatware does not make business or security sense on multiple levels. You confuse and drive away customers by introducing more junk instead of innovating and finding a better way to make cash, while invariably creating more targets for malware writers to choose from. The end result is that you end up with a call from a relative that sounds like this, “Hey I installed that Trillian thing you recommended and now I have a pop-up that keeps notifying me of some deal I don’t care about. What is this? Please help me.” Or worse yet… a call from Mom that goes like, “Hi honey, I don’t understand where this toolbar came from in Internet Explorer and every time I try to use the Google, it sends me to a place called Ask.com, oh and I can’t get to my email.” Everyone hates those conversations. They’re downright terrible.
Now that you’ve alienated customers and installed potentially harmful and/or disruptive software on their machines, you sit and wonder where your cash flow is going. At eEye, we are constantly discussing Security in Context (examples here, here and here); an extremely practical thought process that has helped our customers to better mitigate and manage threats in an increasingly complex world. In our Vulnerability Expert Forum , held the Wednesday after Patch Tuesday, we expound on the virtues of reducing one’s attack surface. Decreasing attack surface is just a part of what we mean by Security in Context, but it is one of the easier things you and your organization can do to protect your assets and hard work. Avoiding software repositories and installers that bundle bloatware is one way to accomplish this. Bloatware is undeniably dangerous for customers and organizations, as well as the reputation of companies that include bloatware… just ask HTC.
Our compliments to Brian Krebs of Krebs on Security for his excellent breakdown of this issue, which inspired us to write this post. If you’re not following Brian on Twitter, we highly recommend it, his investigative research is second to none in the industry.