You think viruses, worms, blended threats and spam are bad? Spyware is worse...
Spyware is software - a program file, a browser helper object, or a dynamic link library, for example - installed on your computer, without your knowledge or permission. Sometimes called adware, nastyware, crapware, scumware, and worse, it's all aggravating, and intrusive. It's enough to turn pacifists into violent activists.
Like spam, spyware delivers unsolicited advertising; unlike spam, spyware tries to deliver targeted advertising. Targeted advertising is based on the premise that the web pages you visit; how long you stay; and where you go provides useful insights about your buying interests and preferences. The theory is, "we know what you like, so if we will bombard you with advertisements of things you like, we will a good chance of evoking a purchase from you."
To target advertising, it's necessary to monitor web use. Monitoring surfing activity - also called tracking and data mining - is a huge industry gone awry. Nearly every merchant is online, resulting in millions of web sites, and online advertising of some form or other on seemingly every page. Understandibly, many companies grow anxious that they cannot compete unless they gain some sort of competitive edge. Some are willing to hire professionals to track user behavior and, by whatever means necessary, lure or redirect users to their web pages.
Enter the spyware companies. Unlike viruses, most spyware is developed by businesses interested in profit more than malics. Spyware companies employ professional software developers, and their product, however distasteful to the public, provides a service. The business of spyware is to help customers (affiliate web sites) increase traffic and sales. Spyware tracks web use, collects information about web users, analyzes what it collects, and either delivers ads for affiliates, or contrives to force users to an affiliate's web presence.
The troublesome aspect of the spyware business model is that the software that spyware companies use to collect data from your PC or to record your surfing history typically collects information you would keep private, if you had a choice. Relatively beningn spyware may gather your web visit history, but truly "spy" ware can collect every URL you visit; record every keystroke you take; and even provide remote administrative control (RAT) to someone intent on observing every virtual move you make.
A companion problem is that spyware, especially browser hijackers, literally take control of a PC and browser. Spyware can alter your Internet settings, substitute home pages, add favorites, and even alter the way your PC looks up domain names, all in an effort to drive traffic to affiliate sites. These pests can redirect queries to legitimate search engines (Google, Yahoo, or AltaVista) requests through their own search engines, which return substitute results to direct you to their affiliates. In some cases, the search results have nothing to do with the original query; in the extreme, users are redirected to offensive (porn) sites, possibly through "for fee" dialers.
Tracking technology is a growing headache for companies as well. Tracking spyware doesn't bother to distinguish proprietary, sensitive and regulated information from all the other information it is collecting. Financial institutions, healthcare organizations, and essentially any organization that must comply with regulations should pay particular attention to the potential for spyware to divulge personal information they must protect. Businesses in general must appreciate that spyware increases risks such as premature or unauthorized disclosure of intellectual property, earnings reports, high profile personnel changes, and product announcements.
Spyware takes many forms. Tracking cookies, browser helper objects, toolbars, web accelerators, and free download versions of software are all hosts for spyware "parasites". Many forms of spyware will go undetected by personal firwewalls and antivirus software, and it is quite common that spyware infestations are self-inflicted. That appealing solitaire game, the helpful toolbar, and sadly, even free or trial versions of antispyware software are all potential spyware carriers.
Spyware can be as malicious as trojans incorporated into a blended threat attack. Keyloggers may be installed as part of the package. Spyware may turn ugly on you. Try to remove it, and spyware may self-destruct and leave your Registry, browser configuration, and DLLs damaged beyond recovery. The presence of spyware on your computer may prevent you from successfully upgrading your operating system (especially to Windows XP Service Pack 2). Registry and other files installed by spyware may interfere with network adapters, LAN and dialup networking, and application installations.
Antispyware appears to be abundant. but deceptive practices and crapware taint the antispyware product market. Rogue spyware may offer free scans, but many produce long lists of false positives to frighten you into purchasing the product. Some antispyware software even incorporates tracking techniques and advertising if you choose to download the free or trial versions. Other rogue antispyware companies bombard you with popups - Your computer may be infected with spyware! - and other forms of unsolicited and misleading advertising: isn't this what you're trying to eliminate?
Use antispyware software. The best current defense against spyware may be to employ more than one antispyware tool, as no one tool is 100 per cent effective in combatting spyware. Some free for personal use spyware detection, blocking and removal utilities are very effective, and have a broad approval base. Some companies practice deceptive marketing and post bogus review sites, so do not base your decision entirely on one review. Check multiple sources, visit rogue spyware list sites, and consider the informal reviews at my Spyware Resources page.
Original publication date: October 2004