While individuals are frequently warned about threats from computer viruses and hackers, so-called “tracking” software can be equally troublesome to your system. My home computer was recently infected by a slew of “spyware” objects that were installed while my son was exploring a Star Wars Web site and playing some on-line games. Suddenly, I had hidden programs tracking my activities and even secretly recording my keystrokes as I was filling out Web forms.
There are two types of programs that do this—adware and spyware. Adware is software that’s included with programs that are free because they require you to look at advertisements. These free programs are often games, music playback software or weather reporting software. The licensing agreement that most users accept without reading provides permission for the ad-supported software to collect and report on some statistical information in exchange for the free use of the program. When you install the free application, the adware component is also installed. The adware then collects information such as which Web sites you visit and sends that information back to the advertiser.
Spyware works the same way, but without any warning or request for your consent. You may download a software that includes spyware and never know it’s there. Last July, a British credit card and finance company was hit with a remote surveillance spyware application that recorded keystrokes and was capable of sending confidential corporate data to the individual originating the spyware application.
Don’t think that your anti-virus program or firewall will necessarily protect you from these programs. I had up-to-date virus definitions and Zone-Alarm running on my system when the spyware applications were installed. Antivirus software typically won’t detect these pests because they aren’t technically viruses. Notably, the latest version of Norton Anti-Virus has added spyware protection. Firewalls only block outgoing messages from adware and spyware; the applications themselves remain running on your system.
Fortunately, there is software dedicated to identifying and removing adware and spyware from your system. Ad-aware by Nicolas Stark Computing AB (www.lavasoftusa.com) and Spybot Search and Destroy by Patrick M. Kolla (www.safer-networking.org) are two highly rated programs that I now use.
These programs scan your system for a few minutes, then present you with a list of the tracking software installed on your system. The programs give you the choice to quarantine or delete the tracking software. Note that some free programs with ties to adware may stop working when the adware is blocked.
The operation of my home system never felt right after my spyware infestation, so I ended up upgrading the operating system and rebuilding the system from scratch. Of course, now I am running an application that alerts me when any adware or spyware activity is suspected.