Spyware 101
Article by Rick Leinecker, February 13, 2006

This is the first column in a series in which I'm going to talk about computer security. Anyone with a home or office computer will get valuable tips and tricks that'll make their computers safer. And I'll keep it practical without getting technical.

Spyware might sound like something for James Bond or Maxwell Smart, but it's common on many home computers. Eighty percent of users had some form of Spyware on their computers in 2004, according to an America Online/National Cyber Security Alliance survey. Spyware produces a wide range of undesirable behaviors including advertising popups, keyboard activity recording, and web usage tracking. Essentially, it takes partial control of a computer without the owners' permission for the benefit of a third party.

Just who are these third parties? Let's start with early Spyware. It performed a service for advertising agencies similar to the Neilson ratings. It tracked web site traffic and usage largely for the purpose of arriving at fees for advertisers. Initially, web surfers gave their permission, but it started sneaking in within utilities such as Gator. And before anyone could catch their breath, almost any commercial entity who was willing to cross the line (ethically if not legally) was surreptitiously installing Spyware on as many computers as possible.

How do you know you have Spyware? There are some telltale symptoms. Excessive popups are the most common and annoying. Bear in mind that many web sites such as Weather.com deliver popups. These web-based popups aren't Spyware. Spyware popups can appear when you navigate to any web site, so try sites such as Google.com and Yahoo.com that don't deliver their own web-based popups. Spyware can change your browser's home page. If, for some reason, your browser's home page changed without your knowledge then you may be infected. Additionally, Spyware often prevents you from changing back to your original home page - this is yet another clue.

There are many more symptoms of Spyware, but I'll mention two more that are fairly common. Many times Spyware hijacks your browser's search mechanism. If you do an Internet search and get weird results, become suspicious. Try several searches and see if there's a pattern of weirdness. The last symptom I'll mention is slow system performance and unexpected crashes. Slow performance and crashes are aggravated on slower, older systems.

If you have Spyware, the remedy is fairly simple. The best way to rid your system of the Spyware vermin is to download, install, and run a Spyware eradication program such as SpyBot, Ad Aware, Microsoft AntiSpyware, Trend Micro Anti-Spyware, or another competent program. SpyBot and Ad Aware are free but then ask for a donation. Microsoft's AntiSpyware product is currently a beta (not in final form) and can be used without charge. Trend Micro's Anti-Spyware product can be used for 30 days without charge.

I normally use SpyBot followed by Ad Aware. They each tend to miss a thing or two that the other catches. I have used many other products, but find that the SpyBot/Ad Aware combination is best for me.

One word of advice, download these from Download.com rather that from a site that comes from a web search. There are many counterfeit SpyBot and Ad Aware product pages that appear in a web search, and you may end up installing software that doesn't do a very good job or isn't free.

There are programs that inoculate your system against Spyware similar to the way antivirus programs automatically protect you against viruses. In general, my main complaint is that their notification system is awkward and sometimes interferes with normal computer functions. This will inevitably be fixed in the future, and I anticipate installing a Spyware inoculation program at that time.

The best way to deal with Spyware is prevention. I'll give you the two most important tips. Never install an executable file (programs and ActiveX controls to name two) over the Internet unless you absolutely trust the source. I always install from Microsoft. Adobe, Macromedia, and others I trust whenever prompted. Don't open email attachments that are executable unless you absolutely trust the source. With this said, though, I have to tell you that my agent once sent me a virus-infected document without being aware that the file was infected.

Those are the basics of Spyware.