Spyware Explained

What is Spyware?

Everyone has heard the term "Spyware."  However, if you are like most consumers, you have only a vague idea of what Spyware actually is, how it works, and most importantly, what you can do to protect yourself against it.  In its most general definition, any program or software that is installed on your computer for the purpose of tracking any of your personal information or activities, without adequate user notice and consent, is considered Spyware.  Spyware functions to take partial control of your interaction with the computer, without your knowledge.  Spyware refers to a broad genre of software, rather than one specific program or virus.  A cumulative term for all these software variations is "privacy-invasive software."

The key difference between defining a program or software as Spyware is whether or not you, or another user of the same computer, understand the functions performed by the software, and have authorized its installation on your personal computer.

Common Functions of Spyware

Advertising/Marketing
Spyware's most common function revolves around advertising and marketing.  Spyware programs secretly monitor user behavior and preferences, and then collect that  information and report it to a central server, which is often linked with advertising agents.  For example, if you routinely check several cooking websites, Spyware collects that information, and suddenly you begin to see pop-ups advertising cooking magazines, stores and cookware promotions.  In addition, Spyware functions as a way to divert to a third party the advertising money generated by your investigation of internet sites.

Additional Software Installation
Spyware can install software onto your computer without your permission.  Software installation without the user's knowledge can take up room on the hard-drive, and make your computer seem sluggish and slow to respond, simply because it is trying to access and start up multiple programs that will run in the background completely without the knowledge of the consumer. In addition, some Spyware programs can access specific software programs that you have installed on your computer and use them without a license, and without your knowledge.

Changes to System Security
Spyware can open back doors to let other programs access your computer as well. Accessing websites without your permission can allow harmful viruses access to your PC. Having Spyware on your computer seriously compromises your virus protection, as well as your protection from pop-ups, image spam, and identity theft.  Some of the most dangerous types of Spyware can capture your keystrokes to ascertain passwords and PIN numbers.

Altered Computer Settings
Spyware can change the settings you have specified for your computer.  They can install new and/or different toolbars and programs, redirect web browser activity and even alter your home page.

Common Vehicles Used by Spyware to Access your Computer

The most common method that Spyware gets installed on your computer is by covertly installing the additionally software during the installation of software that might have been requested by the user, like file-sharing music or video programs, and "free" downloads of games, music and feature films.

The second most common vehicles for Spyware and other dangerous viruses are erotic and pornographic websites.  These websites, because they are tailored for illicit use already, are one of the fastest guaranteed ways to compromise the integrity of your computer system. Hacking your email address list and sending out pornographic advertisements to your address book, initiating massive image spam, and redirecting browser activity and home pages are only some of the problems you can face by visiting these sites.

How can I tell if my computer has Spyware?

Pop-Up Advertisements
Just because you see a pop-up advertisement doesn't mean you have Spyware.  Many websites use pop-ups as additional advertising gimmicks.  However, if the pop-ups you are seeing are not related to the website you are on, or if you see pop-ups even when you are not online or browsing the internet, they are a good indication that Spyware is present.

Changed Settings
The settings on your computer should never change unless you have specifically accessed your personal control panel to change them.  A good sign that the changes are Spyware activated is an inability to change them back easily. Browser changes, home page alterations and search engine changes are common.  In addition, if, when you restart your computer, these settings change, or revert back to an earlier, unspecified change you have noticed previously, you probably have Spyware.

Slow Computer and/or internet start-up
Every program opened and accessed by your computer during start-up contributes to the time required for it to be completed.  Likewise, every program that accesses the internet, adds to the time it takes for your internet browser to launch.  Since Spyware programs, unlike legitimate software, are not necessarily programmed to be efficient, they can add significantly to start up time as they coordinate with the resources and providers they will be using to invade your privacy.  In addition, Spyware software program errors can cause your computer to crash.  If you notice an increase in how frequently specific programs (or even the entire computer crashes) or that your computer performs routine functions slower than normal, it's a good bet that you have Spyware present.

How can I protect my Computer from Spyware?

Use Anti-spyware Software
There are multiple Spyware cleaning agents available either for free, for a small fee, or as part of an operating system.  If your computer is displaying symptoms of being infected with Spyware, act quickly to eliminate the danger.  Using one of these periodically as part of your routine computer maintenance is also good idea. 

Update Your Software
As software and program updates become available for the programs you have installed on your computer as well as your operating system, make sure you take the time to install them.  Software updates provide increased security, as well as correct areas where security might be weak or prone to compromise.

Use a Firewall
Activating, checking, and implementing a heavy-duty firewall is an absolute must for every computer.  There are no exceptions.  Do not use your computer for any function if your firewall is absent or malfunctioning.

Update Internet Browser Security Settings
Make sure you have personally set the security levels for your internet browser via the "internet options" link in your Control Panel.  Occasionally verify and update these settings to make sure that they are being maintained at levels satisfactory to you as the consumer, and have not been altered without your knowledge.

Practice Safe Internet Usage

  • If you are planning on downloading software and programs, make sure that you are only authorizing these downloads from web sites you can trust.  If you are not very computer savvy, or are unsure if a certain website or program is to be trusted, as a friend who is, or even call a local computer store.  Another way to double check is to enter the name of the program into an internet search engine and check to see if anyone else has reported that specific program for containing Spyware.
  • Avoid file-sharing and file-swapping programs.  While they may be quasi-legal, they are a perfect way for hackers, viruses and Spyware to obtain access to your computer, either to deliver a virus, or to obtain private information.
  • Carefully read all of the disclosures, license agreement and user agreement notices that appear whenever you are installing new software.  Sometimes in the fine print near the end there can be small notices that "additional software" may be installed as well. 
  • Everyone has experienced clicking "OK" to try and close an unwanted pop-up window, only to be redirected to more unwanted advertisement information! Instead of clicking "agree" or "OK" to close a window, click the red "x" in the corner of the window or press ALT+F4 on your keyboard.
  • Be aware of what your children are doing on your computer, and regularly search for file-sharing programs.  For more tips on family-smart internet, visit www.getnetwise.org. for parental control software.