Backdoor Santas
Article by Rick Leinecker, July 10, 2007

This is funny. I teach several classes in which students go to the Internet to download and install software. One of my students, though, has every toolbar known to mankind in his Internet browser. It seems like the screen has more toolbars than Internet content. And it's because he lets the programs he installs give him some extras that he didn't explicitly ask for. These types of programs are usually known as backdoor Santas. The Santa part comes from the fact that you're getting something that you want. The backdoor part comes from the fact that you're also getting something that you don't want.

Backdoor Santas can be malicious, but rarely are. They can also sometimes act like spyware, but usually don't. These programs usually add browser toolbars in the hopes that you'll use them, and therefore sustain their commercial interests. For instance, the Google toolbar makes it easy to search using the Google search engine, and therefore enhances their ability to sell search-related ads because with the Google toolbar, more people are inclined to use the Google search engine. The Yahoo toolbar is similar; the only difference is that it brings you to the Yahoo search engine.

Now you have to be asking what the big deal is. You might like the Google or Yahoo toolbars. If you do, that's just dandy. What I'm cautioning you about, though, is the danger of installing so many toolbars that your system is confusing if not downright unusable. One or two toolbars in your browse is probably fine, especially if you like using them.

Okay, so the question you need to be asking is "how do you get backdoor Santas?" Knowing how you get them will help you avoid getting the ones you don't want. Let's start by talking about software that can be downloaded from the Internet. It almost always has an installation program that copies files to the appropriate place and sets up an entry in the Programs menu. These installation scripts usually display dialog boxes letting you know that the program is getting ready to install, showing you the progress of the installation, and letting you know when the process has been completed.

Many times, though, the first several dialogs of the installation process contain a check box which is already selected. It asks if you want to install the Google toolbar, or the Yahoo toolbar, or whatever extra goody is available. If you're moving quickly you might not notice that it's there. You simply click the Next button instead of paying attention to the check box at the bottom of the dialog. And by not de-selecting the check box, you're providing implicit permission for that extra software to be installed.

My student who has all of the toolbars swears he didn't install anything extra. But I've watched him during the download and install process, and he goes way too quickly to even notice what he's doing. And that's what the developers of the installation scripts are counting on. They want to make it difficult for you to notice the check boxes by using small fonts, subdued colors, and placement at the bottom of the screen. They also make the installation process easy so that you're tempted to breeze through it. And before you know it you have dozens of unwanted toolbars.

Just be careful when you install software. Make sure that you pay attention to the check boxes that offer you these extras. And once you start looking for them, you'll start noticing how many times these choices are part of software installation.

That's it for backdoor Santas.