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Sears backs down over “spyware” controversy

One of the USA’s biggest retailers has agreed to settle charges brought by federal authorities that it installed a form of spyware on customer computers.

Sears Holding Corporation, owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Kmart has agreed to delete any information that it gained after it was found to have misled users into installing software from ComScore which would then monitor their online habits.

The agreement comes as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission although the company did not concede that it had broken any laws.

The FTC accused Sears Holdings of misleading customers in as part of market research campaign in which customers were encouraged to join an “online community”. Tracking software from ComScore was installed on the PCs of those who agreed to be part of the scheme.

But the FTC said Sears used the software to collect information on non-Sears sites, such as online bank statements, drug prescription records and emails as well as tracking user keystrokes, contrary to what many customers believed that they were agreeing to.

Sears did disclose that it would monitor non-Sears sites on page 10 of a 54-page user license agreement, but the FTC argued it was not enough.

“The complaint charges that Sears’ failure to adequately disclose the scope of the tracking software’s data collection was deceptive,” the FTC said in a statement.

“At all times, Sears Holdings ensured the privacy and security of the personal information of all participants who enrolled in the program,” Sears said in an email statement. “No customer data was ever compromised or disclosed.”

It is not the first time that ComScore software has been criticised, with experts such as Harvard researcher Ben Edelman claiming in 2007 that ComScore software was being distributed over the controversial DollarRevenue network, which has since been shut down. ComScore subsequently took steps to prevent DollarRevenue from distributing its software.

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