Despise 'Ware

Q: A few weeks back, I downloaded a game called Blasterball 2 from Shockwave.com. Before I could save it to my hard disk, a pop-up insisted that the game wouldn't work unless I also downloaded something called the "WildTangent Web Driver." Now there's an annoying little icon on my task bar, and my PC's acting all sluggish. What's up with this WildTangent thingie?

The bottom line is that the WildTangent program's nothing more than gussied-up spyware, designed to mine your computer for info that might be valuable to third-party marketers. What makes the product particularly irritable is its cockroach-like peskiness; once you've got WildTangent on your hard drive, it ain't so easy to get rid of.

The genius of WildTangent (wildtangent.com), of course, is that it's frequently packaged alongside time-wasting games like Blasterball 2 and Mars Rover. So there you are at work, looking to chew up the clock until quitting time, and you figure, "What the hey? If I need to download this in order to blast some mean-spirited aliens, why not?" Since these games won't function without the Web driver, what choice do you really have in the matter?

But you're entering into a Faustian bargain, mein freund. Though WildTangent itself isn't classic spyware, it comes bundled with some other "goodies" that are essentially data miners—little harvesting programs that figure out where you've roamed in cyberspace. Mr. Roboto was not able to figure out exactly how this bundled spyware works, but was certainly miffed to find lots of WildTangent nuggets burrowed deep within his Windows registry. Over at Annoyances.org, one disgruntled poster claims to have located 120 WildTangent-related data miners on his hard disk.

In all fairness, the driver isn't quite as odious as, say, Gator or BonziBuddy, the most despicable of spyware threats. It's not much of a memory hog, so your performance head-aches are probably related to another issue—when's the last time you deleted your temporary Internet files or did a disk cleanup? And some of those games are pretty cool; Mr. Roboto will confess to spending way too much time perfecting yaws on Blackhawk Striker.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether you're willing to trade privacy for leisure. The WildTangent privacy policy is pretty up-front about Web cookies: "Select third parties may also use and view these cookies to recognize you and provide products and services to you." You can set your browser to refuse WildTangent cookies, through the "Internet Options" menu, but the policy warns that doing so may cause the driver to malfunction.

The most aggravating thing about WildTangent is the uninstall process. Using the "Add/Remove Programs" utility on your PC's Control Panel works only superficially; WildTangent remains lodged in a backup folder, and that taskbar icon's still there, too.

To cleanse your computer in full, Mr. Roboto recommends you start by running SpyBot Search & Destroy, which can be downloaded for free from beam.to/spybotsd. (While you're there, please be a dear and drop a few quid in the donation box, won't you?) This gem of a program will get you halfway there; you'll want to finish the job by running EasyCleaner (toniarts.com/ecleane.htm), which scrubs the Windows registry clear of any spyware detritus. Added bonus for comparative literature majors: EasyCleaner's instructions can be downloaded in Catalan or Latvian, if that floats your boat.

Finally, you can ditch the icon by going to the Start menu, running a search for a file slugged "wtcpl.cpl," then deleting it. There may be multiple copies, with one stored in a backup folder; you can safely trash 'em all.

Of course, once you've deep-sixed WildTangent, you can no longer play those nifty gratis games. You can look elsewhere, but if you're a true privacy buff don't be suckered into using the Gigex delivery agent (gigex.com), which is also on SpyBot's hit list for its snooping features. Cheapskate gamers are urged instead to scour the list of demos available at pcgameworld.com. Mr. Roboto, no stranger to penny-pinching himself, recently wasted a whole Saturday playing the Max Payne and Kingpin demos. Either one beats Blasterball 2 by a country mile.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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