Created: 03 Feb 2004 ::: Last updated: 10 Feb 2008
Applies to: Win95 Win98 WinMe Win 2000/NT WinXP WinVista MacOS
By Andy Walker
What is spyware, how can you rid yourself of it?
Question: I have ads that pop up even when I am not on the Internet. Can you help?
Answer: If viruses, hackers, and spam weren’t enough, now there’s spyware threatening your computer’s health. Yes, what you are experiencing is a nasty little program from some marketer (or worse identity thief) called spyware.
The phenomenon isn’t that new. It has been around pretty much since the consumer Internet appeared in 1994 and 1995.
Although it’s not new, its nuisance factor has grown dramatically in recent years and is now a key way Internet criminals steal your personal information to exploit your identity or steal from online bank accounts.
Spyware is an illicit program placed on your computer without your knowledge. This program comes in various forms. It can collect data about you or your computer habits and send it to someone else on the Internet.
There’s also a category of spyware called a “Trojan horse”. This is secretly installs on your computer, and later used to access your computer across the Internet without your knowledge or it will download other tools from Internet bad guys and install those on your system.
Spyware programs can collect data about your habits, collect your files, or capture your keystrokes (that variation is called a “keylogger”). This data can be harvested and sent to someone else on the Internet. Again, you’d never be notified that any of it is happening.
Spyware can also lie dormant until you are active on your computer, and then it forces ads upon you (that’s what’s happening to you).
Some corporations use this as a guerrilla marketing technique. Their ads can appear either in a pop-up window on your web browser, or on your desktop. They might offer you a free feature you might want—perhaps a desktop enhancement like a clock or calendar—and collect data behind the scenes, or simply push ads at you.
Less ethical marketing companies create programs to hijack your web browser and convert its homepage from the one you’ve chosen to one run by the marketer. These nasty programs also use programming tricker to prevent you from using the conventional methods of changing the homepage back to the one you want.
Web “cookies” may also be considered spyware, under some circumstances. They are little pieces of information—not much more than a tiny text file—placed in your web browser to track your web habits. This is part of your web browser’s design. Cookies like that can be useful, letting a web site see that you have visited it before and let you on without a registration process. Cookies are also used to keep track of your shopping basket in a web store. They can also be used to customize website ads and track your progress through web pages.
Besides the obvious problems with privacy and security, spyware also hogs precious system resources like memory and hard disk space, slowing your computer’s processing ability, and—in some cases—boot-up time. If used to commandeer your email and Internet connection, spyware can be used to send spam from your computer or launch malicious attacks on other computers on the Internet, making it look like you are at fault.
So how does it get there? Well, spyware gets on your computer through a variety of mechanisms. It can be downloaded as part of a free program. It can also arrive secretly via an automatic download behind the main window of a web site. This is common on questionable web sites like those that contain pirated software or adult content.
Spyware will also piggyback on free downloaded programs. Sometimes, authors of software make revenue by including them in their downloader packages. They can also be contracted via instant messenger (Internet chat), if someone sends you a program, or via email as an attachment. Chances are you have some form of spyware on your computer right now, especially if the computer you use is a communal family PC that children use to play games on.
So what to do? Well, the good news is that there is quite a few anti-spyware programs designed to help you rid your computer of spyware. Just like an anti-virus program, anti-spyware programs detect when spyware programs arrive, block their installation, and provide a mechanism for removal.
As previously mentioned, some spyware is download by piggybacking on downloads of freeware programs. We have two free programs that will help you keep this nasty spyware off your computer. They don’t contain any spyware added into their download packages. They are Spybot Search & Destroy and Microsoft Windows Defender, formerly called Microsoft Anti-Spyware.
While freeware programs alone will only catch 70% of spyware in the wild from infesting your computer, we strongly recommend that you add an extra defense in protecting yourself with at least one paid-for version of an anti-spyware program. This will help you cover as much of the remaining percentage as possible.
One of my favorites is Spy Sweeper, which includes not only a spyware detector but detects keyloggers. When spyware is found, the program categorizes it, provides a threat level assessment, and includes a mechanism to delete it. Links in the program also take you to information pages on the web that tell you more about the spyware program. It also lists cookies on your system that it considers to be spyware.
You might also look at lots of anti-spyware programs available on Amazon.
For more information about spyware, see the Anti-Spyware FAQ.