A PUP is a Potentially-Unwanted Program

by Jerry Stern
Archivist, Software Knowledge Base
Tech, PC410.com

Malware was simpler decades back. We had clarity. It was all bad. Now, we have ‘PUP’s.
That’s an acronym for ‘potentially-unwanted program.’ McAfee, Inc, created that label some years back, and probably did it in their legal department. I can imagine the conversation:

Tech: There’s a bunch of malware, mostly adware, that’s redirecting web searches and adding toolbars, and claiming they provide a service. Can we label it evil and delete it all?
Staff Lawyer: It’s a service, then. No.
Tech: Well, it’s a service for the publisher, sending search results back home, or popping up advertising targeted to what’s on the computer.
Staff Lawyer: That could be a service, or it could be a privacy issue. We can’t make that call. So the answer is no.
Tech: But it’s causing problems. It has to go.
Staff Lawyer: We’re deleting malware, not writing reviews on bad products. Still no.
Tech: This junk is messing up computers. It’s slipping in bundled with other products, unasked.
Staff Lawyer: Do those other products have real companies associated with them? Companies with lawyers? If so, still no. They would sue us. Some have already tried.
Tech: Can we just label it as junk and recommend removing it?
Staff Lawyer: Sure, just don’t libel anybody. Give it a nice name that’s vague enough to say nothing about the product.
Tech: Like ‘Cruddy Apps’?
Staff Lawyer: No, that’s a commentary on the product. Try ‘potentially-unwanted products’. It’s about the consumer, not the product, right?
Tech: Make it an acronym. PUPs. As long as it has an acronym and we can delete it, that works for us.

All right, I have no inside knowledge of the actual conversation. But I know lots of techs, including me, and lots of lawyers. The real conversation probably took months.

So the bottom line is that most anti-virus products will not automatically block or remove ‘PUPs’. Many have an option to ‘report an enhanced list of products’, or ‘mark PUPs for removal’, but that option is nearly always turned off by default. (That’s another technical contribution from the legal department.)

Some PUPs are bundled with free software, and some are installed by monetizers. Some PUPs show up at your door, looking hungry. No, wait, that’s a pup. Not the acronym. Just be careful which pups you allow into your life.