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Spyware: Protect Your Privacy

What is Spyware? I have lost count of the number of times that we have been called out to repair a personal computer and found that the system was damaged by "Spyware". Spyware is Internet jargon for Advertising Supported software (Adware). Advertising Spyware is software that is installed alongside other software or via ActiveX controls on the internet, often without the user's knowledge, or without full disclosure that it will be used for gathering personal information and/or showing the user ads. Advertising Spyware logs information about the user, possibly including passwords, email addresses, web browsing history, online buying habits, the computer's hardware and software configuration, the name, age, sex, etc of the user. In addition to privacy and security concerns, resource-hogging Adware and Spyware can cause system and browser instability and slowness. Here are a couple of scenarios indicating a Spyware "infection".

- Scenario 1: Your search engine is New: Google. You visit the Google website and do your search. All of a sudden you have advertisements popping up all over your screen. Annoying right? The Google web site does not use pop-ups! It is against their company philosophy (another reason why I love Google). So where are the pop-ups coming from? There is software (Spyware) on your PC monitoring your key strokes and hard drive contents and sending the information to a third party on the Internet which then presents advertising pop-ups to you based on your search interests or the web sites you have been visiting.

This scenario illustrates how Spyware can be extremely annoying. But worse, consider the security and privacy issues that are highlighted by this type monitoring. How secure are your passwords that you use locally or online? Is this information being sent back to a server along with other personal or business information scanned from your hard drive? Maybe, maybe not. It is not worth taking a chance. We will discuss how to identify and prevent Spyware from "infecting" your system a little later. - Scenario 2: You start your computer in the morning. The PC was never the fastest on the block to boot up and be ready to work but it was never as slow as it is now. Now the computer's hard drive's light stays on continuously and you can hear the hard drive thrashing away in your computer. This abnormal disk activity is a clue that there may be Spyware scanning your hard drive and sending the results to a third party which in turn is using it to aim advertising at you based on your interests. The second scenario illustrates not only the privacy and security issues mentioned in scenario one, but also the resources that the Spyware appropriates for it's own use.

The most noticeable resource degradation is that of the PC itself. Valuable RAM, CPU cycles, and hard disk reads are being used by the Spyware for it's own use. On a slower PC this resource use is very noticeable creating an unusable and unstable PC for periods of time. User productivity is sure to suffer because of this. Network and Internet bandwidth is also being used by the Spyware which results in slower access for legitimate network communications and can result in reduced productivity and higher costs of network ownership. How to Identify a Spyware "Infestation" There are some clues that indicate spyware could be installed on a computer. You are bombarded with pop-up ads every time you use the web browser. The PC is showing sluggishness and increased disk activity is noticed. The PC becomes increasingly unstable and more prone to crashes and blue screens. Icons appear in the taskbar tray that weren't there before.

Network activity is observed when the computer is not being used. An increase in the amount and frequency of email spam is observed. There are many freeware titles available that install Spyware on your system. One of the most identifiable types of Spyware is from a company called Gator Advertising(http://www.gator.com/). Their Spyware is installed alongside free programs such as Precision Time, Date Manager, and Offer Companion. You may have seen one or more of these programs after they magically appear in your Taskbar Tray (where your computer clock is displayed). See figure 2-1 and 2-2. Ever wondered how they got there? You're about to find out.

Date Manager tray icon Precision Time tray icon How Spyware is Installed Some Internet websites utilize additional software to enable special features available on the site. One of the most common sites using this technology is the Microsoft Windows Update site. Before installing updates, you are required to accept the installation of a small piece of software called an ActiveX control. Shockwave enhanced sites also require the acceptance of additional software. It is okay to accept this software. Provided that your Web Browser security settings are enabled you will be shown a screen asking permission to install the software. See figure 2-3 and 2-4 Now this is where it gets confusing. Have a look at the figure 2-5 and 2-6 below. Not much difference from the Shockwave and Windows Update Security Warnings shown above.


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