YouGov recently confronted survey participants with an odd offer to download software that would track users' surfing habits.
The unusual request came to our attention via a reader. YouGov told us the tracking software was a project idea from its US office and nothing much was likely to come of it.
A YouGov spokeswoman explained that the "software questions", offered to participants of its regular monthly oracle survey, were for a international project that its office in the USA is running on behalf of a (unnamed) client. "The questions on this occasion were simply part of a standard screening exercise to measure feasibility for such a project - we do not currently have a commissioned study of this nature," a YouGov statement explained.
As it turns out, YouGov went a few steps further than simply asking questions about what its users may or not be happy to accept, and actually offered software for download.
Responding to our original story, another Reg reader got in touch and forwarded us a sample of the package offered for download.
We passed this sample on to anti-virus analysts at Sophos, who were good enough to run a preliminary analysis of the software. They concluded it was the sort of internet tracking software they would advise its business customers to block by flagging it as "potentially unwanted".
According to a basic analysis of the application by security research Paul Baccas of SophosLabs, the application uses the following Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) or internet resources:
"ws.knowledgenetworks.com" - a seemingly legit survey company
"panelapp.rankey.com" - toolbar manufacturer (Chinese?)
"surfboardhi.com" - no info at all ("which seems quite suspicious")
"panelapp.yougov.com" - YouGov's seemingly legit survey company
"search-cn.aipsurveys.com" - a seemingly legit survey company
"mars.researchnow.co.uk" - a seemingly legit survey company
This preliminary analysis tells us what locations the application is phoning home to but not what information might be transmitted.
Brian, the reader who sent us the sample, explained how it was offered. "I'm a regular participant in their surveys, and was notified about this study as well," he told El Reg.
"I completed the survey, including a waiver/disclaimer where I agreed to be spied on, and they offered a file (PanelApp_installer_pa_YS_en.msi). I downloaded and installed it on a clean WinXP test machine, and it installed something called panelapp.exe. Other than the executable, it doesn't install any GUI, start menu folder or toolbar icon. It does add an entry to add/remove programs. In order to remove it, you have to agree to forfeit the 10,000 pollingpoints 'reward' they originally promised.
"I checked netstat to see if there were any strange outbound connections after installing the app, but I didn't see any."
Asked whether Sophos would classify the YouGov software as a potentially unwanted application if it came across a sample on the net or via a customer report, Sophos senior technology consultant Graham Cluley said: "Yes, we probably would."
The classification 'potentially unwanted application' is typically applied to anything from ad-ware to P2P client software. These applications are not malicious, as such, but something Sophos' business customers might well want to know was running on their networks before deciding whether or not to block it.
YouGov is yet to respond to our request for comment on what it made of Sophos' negative classification of its software. We'll update this story when we hear more or learn what the survey organisation plans to do more with the internet tracking idea or whether it has shelved the idea. ®