Spyware

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What is Spyware?

Though the term “spyware” has captured the public consciousness and become synonymous with all sorts of malignant software, spyware is actually a subset of a more general grouping of pestilential software known as malware. Malware encompasses all that software you don’t want on your system.

Some forms of malware are merely annoying, such as adware. Adware are programs that run in the background without your knowledge. They may pop up random ads onto your desktop with no prompting, or may spy on your browsing habits and send you targeted ads based on the sites you visit.

Your browser can be hijacked by a piece of adware, which will redirect normal webpage links towards sites controlled by the adware author and generally mess you around. The first sign that this has happened is your homepage being replaced with an ad and your browser not responding to any attempts you make to change it back.

Other malware is just plain dangerous. This is where true spyware comes in — there exist spyware programs that read the keystrokes of credit card numbers you enter into webpage forms and send them back to the programmer. You could also fall prey to programs that monitor what websites you visit and send this data back to marketers who will be able to build up a full picture of you and your interests without your permission.

Where Does Spyware Come From?

In most cases the owner of a computer won’t even be aware that their computer is infested with spyware. It’s not uncommon to begin to clean a system of spyware and find a dozen or so programs merrily executing code and collecting data.

The software can come from a number of places. Most commonly, it “piggy-backs” onto your system along with another program which you did want to install. A popular freeware program will be offered to download, but when you install it a number of other programs are installed too (that’s how the programmers of the original software can afford to give it away for free).

The most notorious example of this practice is the file-sharing application » Kazaa, which came with so many adware programs that another group of programmers began to hack it and post their own version of the software, called KazaaLite, which was free of adware. This only lasted a few months before they were shut down.

Be wary of any commercial freeware, many have taken to adding adware to the install package.

The second most common method of getting adware onto your system is to sneak it past you by popping up an offer on a webpage and asking you if you’re interested.

Confirmation dialog for free money

The text in this confirmation dialog can say literally anything, but if you answer yes you have given the webpage author free reign to install almost anything they want into your browser. This is how most browser hijacks occur. Usually you’ll end up with a corrupted homepage, a half dozen new unwanted bookmarks and a toolbar which purports to have many useful features like form auto-completion but is really monitoring your browsing habits.

Removing Spyware

This all probably sounds a little scary. Your computer could have spyware installed and running right now and you wouldn’t know about it. Thankfully, there are some excellent programs available to combat the rising tide of spyware.

First download both of these programs (don’t worry — they’re safe!):

  • » Ad-Aware
  • » SpyBot: Search & Destroy

Now run them both twice. The first eradication might uncover some spyware that was being suppressed by another program.

Keep your spyware definitions up to date and scan your system again at least once a month to make sure you don’t pick up any more spyware by accident. Then follow the tips below to make your browsing more secure, so that spyware will find it a lot more difficult to get onto your system