As technology advances and more people come to rely on the Internet for information, leisure and business, keeping your computer free of advertising is a daunting task.
Spyware and adware, while not technically in either the virus or spam category, are a growing concern for Internet users. At various times these programs may invade your privacy, contain malicious code, and are — at the very least — a nuisance to anyone using an Internet-connected computer
Programs, games or utilities can be designed and distributed as freeware. Sometimes freeware blocks features and functions of the software until you pay to register it.
Today a growing number of software developers offer their goods as “sponsored” freeware until you pay to register. Generally most or all features of the freeware are enabled but you have to look at sponsored advertisements —adware — while using the software.
The advertisements usually run in a small section of the software interface or as a pop-up ad box on your desktop. When you stop running the software, the ads should disappear. This lets you try the software before they buy, and you always have the option of disabling the ads by purchasing a registration key.
In many cases, adware is a legitimate revenue source for companies who offer their software free to users. A perfect example of this would be the popular e-mail program, Eudora. You can choose to purchase Eudora or run the software in sponsored mode. In sponsored mode Eudora displays an ad window in the program and up to three sponsored toolbar links.
Eudora adware is not malicious; it reportedly doesn’t track your habits or provide information about you to a third party. This type of adware is simply serving up random paid ads within the program. When you quit the program the ads stop running on your system.
Unfortunately, some freeware applications that contain adware do track your surfing habits in order to serve ads related to you. When the adware becomes intrusive like this, we move it into the spyware category and it becomes something you should avoid for privacy and security reasons. Due to its invasive nature, spyware has really given adware a bad name because many people do not know the differences between the two, or use the terms interchangeably.
Spyware is considered a malicious program and is similar to a Trojan Horse in that users unwittingly install the product when they install another program. A common way to become a victim of spyware is to download certain peer-to-peer file swapping products that are available today.
Spyware works like adware but is usually a separate program that’s installed unbeknownst to you when you install another freeware type program or application. Once installed, the spyware monitors user activity on the Internet and transmits that information in the background to someone else. Spyware can also gather information about e-mail addresses and even passwords and credit card numbers.
Because spyware exists as independent executable programs, it has the capability to monitor your keystrokes, scan files on the hard drive, snoop other applications, such as chat programs or word processors, install other spyware programs, read cookies, change the default home page on the Web browser, while consistently relaying this information back to the spyware author who will either use it for advertising and marketing purposes or sell the information to another party.
Licensing agreements that accompany software downloads sometimes warn the user that a spyware program will be installed along with the requested software, but the licensing agreements are not always read completely by users, and the notice of a spyware installation is often couched in obtuse, hard-to-read legal disclaimers.
While you may not realize spyware has been installed on your computer, there are some signs to look for. If you notice any changes to your Web browser that you did not make — such as extra toolbars or different homepage settings — as well as changes to your security settings and favorites list, you could have spyware running on your system.
Other signs of spyware infection include pop-up ads that aren’t related to a Web site you’re viewing; usually spyware advertisements involve adult content and are not displayed in the same fashion as legitimate ads you would normally see on your favorite Web sites. You may also see advertisements when you’re not browsing the Web. Clicking hyperlinks that do not work (or take you somewhere you didn’t expect), a sluggish system, or your system taking longer to load the Windows desktop are all signs that your computer may be infected with spyware.
With the onset of spyware comes a plethora of anti-spyware software packages to rid your system of these unwanted and malicious programs. Anti-spyware software works by identifying any spyware installed on your system and removing it. Since spyware is installed like any other application on your system it will leave traces of itself in the system registry and in other places on your computer. Anti-spyware software will look for evidence of these files and delete them if found.
It is important to remember that not all companies who claim their software contains adware are really offering adware. There is always a chance that adware is spyware in disguise so to speak, and that programs with embedded spyware may not state its existence at all. Always stay on the side of caution and be sure to research privacy policies and licensing agreements that come with freeware. You should also become familiar with Internet lists of companies reported to be using spyware. Much like a firewall or anti-virus program, anti-spyware software is crucial to maintain optimal protection and security on your computer and network.
Adapted from webopedia.com.
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