AOL/Netscape spies on surfers

The 'SmartDownload' and 'Search' features of the Netscape Browser log downloads and search queries and send this data to Netscape, thus transferring file names, search criteria and the user's e-mail address without asking for permission to do so.

Since the launch of version 4.7x, the Netscape Browser has been equipped with the "SmartDownload" feature as an option which is either automatically installed during the download of the Browser or as a plugin. If installed, SmartDownload is started every time the user downloads a file from the web. It opens a new dialog box in which the download is carried out and also displays a banner ad.

SmartDownload offers the advantage of not having to initiate a complete retransfer of files after the connection has been terminated abnormally. The routine continues the download, starting at the last valid data packet.

Behind the scenes, however, the routine transmits a series of data to the Netscape server without informing the user on this process.

The editors of used the analysis tool "Sniffer" by Network Associates in order to monitor such a "SmartDownload" operation. Sniffer is capable of storing the individual data packets sent via an Internet connection on the local drive, thus recording exactly what data is transmitted.

Shortly after the download has started, SmartDownload sends a packet to the "" server. This packet includes a reference to the server from which the file is downloaded, the file name and the user's IP address. If the user had logged on to the "Netcenter" Netscape page before, his e-mail address is also transferred. A large number of Netscape users are registered with Netcenter since this registration renders it particularly easy to install new versions of the Netscape software. In addition, information on the computer name used in the local network and the operating system used is transmitted to AOL/Netscape.