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The software was developed by two MIT-trained computer scientists, Doug Wyatt and Tom Pinckney. “Search is one of the places where people start down the path to unknown places,” says Wyatt. “Most people don’t know anything about these websites. That’s where having some guidance on the kinds of places that have safety issues really comes in handy.”

Ben Edelman, a spyware expert, Harvard economics PhD candidate, and member of SiteAdvisor’s board of advisors, says SiteAdvisor offers the first automated web-rating system. To be sure, other companies and organizations provide services that help reassure Web users. Companies like VeriSign offer encryption services for a fee, allowing websites to show that they are secure. And TRUSTe verifies that companies have posted privacy policies.

But SiteAdvisor is different, Edelman says, because of its independence from the sites it rates. With SiteAdvisor, websites “can’t pay $1,000 to get a green checkmark,” he says. Edelman also questions whether certifications about encryption or privacy policies are the most relevant to the average web user. “SiteAdvisor gives information on the things users actually care about – spam, spyware, popup ads.”

The SiteAdvisor launch comes a month after the launch of StopBadware.org, an academic effort funded by Google, Sun, and Lenovo, which aims to spotlight offending malware purveyors, generate consumer-friendly defensive strategies, and form working definitions of good and bad code – the line is often blurry as spyware continually evolves.

Created by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Oxford University, StopBadware.org will be a noncommercial source of consumer information. Still in its formative stages, the effort is beginning by collecting empirical information from both consumers and technical experts about malware infections.

SiteAdvisor launches today as a free download; enhanced versions of it that require a subscription will be rolled out later this year, with an annual fee whose amount is still to be determined, Wyatt says. 

Home page image courtesy of SiteAdvisor.

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