Why having PC
Anti-Virus software is no longer enough.
problem of Spyware
We've all heard the cliché,
"There's no such thing as a free lunch." This is as true for use of the
Internet as anywhere else. Whether it's through advertising, or through
the use of your personal information, you're going to be made to pay
somehow. The key is to understand what you're agreeing to and what
you're willing to pay for something that claims to be free.
There's a new type of software
out there that you may have heard about. It's called spyware and the
most common way it gets on your computer is when you are downloading
something else that claims to be free.
software that collects personal information from you without first
letting you know what it's doing and without letting you decide whether
this is OK or not. The information spyware collects can range from all
the Web sites you visit to more sensitive information like usernames and
passwords. You might be the target of spyware if you download music from
file-sharing programs, free games from sites you don't trust, or other
software programs from an unknown source. It is important to emphasize
here that business environments are just as likely to be hit as any
Spyware is often
associated with software that displays advertisements, called adware.
Some advertisers may covertly install adware on your system and generate
a stream of unsolicited advertisements that can clutter your desktop and
affect your productivity. The advertisements may also contain
pornographic or other material that you might find inappropriate. The
extra processing required to track you or to display advertisements can
tax your computer and hurt your system performance.This is not to say
that all software which provides ads or tracks your online activities is
bad. If you sign up for a free music service and in return for that free
service the company offers you targeted advertisements, it might be a
fair tradeoff. Likewise, tracking online activities can be useful when
displaying customized search content or personalized preferences at an
The scale of the
spread of spyware can be seen in the results of a significant survey by
AOL last year which told us that “91% of users have Spyware lurking on Home
Computers”. Although some anti-virus providers have started to
address the threat of Spyware in their products it is still the case
that the vast majority of Spyware infections will be left “untreated” by
anti-virus software. This lack of protection continues to present
opportunities for those wishing to exploit this hole.
unauthorized adware are two examples of "deceptive" software. Deceptive
software includes programs which take over your home page or search page
without first getting your permission. There are a number of ways
deceptive software can get on your system. A common trick is to covertly
install the software during the installation of other software you want
such as a music or video file sharing program.
to deceptive software was some two years ago when called to a small
business to resolve problems with their main PC. I was expecting that a
virus was at the heart of my client’s problem. I found a computer
virtually at standstill; the processor was running at 100% utilisation –
unable to respond to any instruction. Investigation found that a number
of programs had been installed so that they would start up automatically
at boot time. Names of the programs were disguised as operating system
programs. Attempts to end the rogue programs failed since they
reappeared with 4-5 seconds. Use of the system restore facility also
proved fruitless. This article not being the place for great technical
detail I will just state that it took some very low level techniques and
four hours of my time to completely eradicate all traces of the
infection. More importantly, my client lost usage of the PC for the
I give this
example to demonstrate that deceptive programs can be rather nasty as
well as simple annoying pop-up creators.
Is your PC affected by Spyware?
one or more of the following symptoms can suggest infection:
browser opens to display Web site advertisements.
Your Web browser's home page unexpectedly changes.
Web pages are unexpectedly added to your Favourites
New toolbars are unexpectedly added to your Web
You cannot start a program.
When you click a link in a program, the link does not
Your Web browser suddenly closes or stops responding.
It takes a longer to boot up or to re-start your
Components of Windows or other programs no longer
PC performance shows a sudden downturn.
The main problem
that most people notice is that they have performance issues with their
computers. For example, Internet Explorer might not work properly any
more, your computer might hang more frequently, or your computer might
slow down significantly. Removing spyware successfully is difficult
enough to make preventing it in the first place a priority.
adware and spyware usually install on your computer covertly by using
one of two methods:
Links to spyware can be
deceptive. For example, a Web site that's trying to push spyware
onto your computer might open a window that looks like a Windows
dialog box, and then trick you by installing when you click a Cancel
button to close the dialog box. Sometimes, spyware pushers will put
a fake title bar in an empty window, and then install spyware when
you try closing the window.
For example, you might install
a free file-sharing program that surreptitiously installs spyware on
your computer. File-sharing programs can be a major conveyor of
spyware can transmit your personal information and download
advertisements 24 hours a day. It can also hijack your browser settings,
such as your home page or search page.
Protect against Spyware and Adware
Without help, you have no way to
prevent adware or spyware. Old antivirus programs don't even prevent
adware, since they didn't consider them viruses or worms. First, you
usually give permission to install adware, although you do so
unwittingly because adware and spyware pushers are deceptive. Second,
adware doesn't behave like a typical virus or worm.
Prevent unwanted Installation
Many freeware programs do include
adware. It's how the publishers make their money. If you're not sure,
read the license agreement carefully (these are usually shown directly
or through links as part of the installation process). Also, check the
publisher's Web site very carefully. If you're still not sure, search
Google Groups for the name of the program and the keywords adware or
spyware. If you don't find any postings about it, then you're probably
Much spyware installs after you
click a deceptive link in a pop-up browser window. Install a pop-up
blocker and you won't even be tempted to click those links. Google
provide one of the best pop-up blocking tools and it is free.
If you do click what seems like an
innocuous link, and then you see a dialog box, don't click the “Yes”
button to install the software. If in doubt do not proceed. This dialog
box is your last line of defence and you should only install programs
from the Internet that you chose to install. This is akin to giving your
credit card number to someone who calls you at home. It's a different
story if you called them.
best strategy is to be discriminating about what you choose to download
Check your Computer
The first thing
to do is to scan your computer for adware and spyware. There is software
specifically designed for detecting spyware and adware, and helping you
remove it. Two of the best products are Ad-aware and Spybot. Both are
available in freeware versions for use by individuals at home. A
commercial version is also available for use in corporate environments.
A final thought.
Next time you are sitting at your PC, be it for work or pleasure,
remember that others maybe taking a little more interest in your
pursuits than you think, so be aware.