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Part 1 - What is it?

Written on October 20, 2004 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine

Earlier this month, legislation passed in the US House of Representatives to prohibit unfair or deceptive practices involving "spyware". The legislation carries significant fines and even prison terms for those convicted. At the time of writing this article, the Senate had not passed the legislation, nor had it been sent to President Bush for signature. To the best of our knowledge, no such legislation (outside of the more general Privacy Acts) exists in Canada.

We've all been bombarded with spam, viruses and various other impediments to worry-free use of the Internet, but what is this "spyware" stuff, anyway?

Spyware, and the related term Adware, are Internet jargon for "Advertising Supported Software". It is one way for shareware authors (software developers who write the programs that you can download for free) to be paid for their services without passing the cost on to the user (you). Media companies offer the developers a percentage of the revenues from banner ads the developers agree to place in their software. While it looks like a win-win for everyone - you get free software, the developer gets paid, and the advertising folks sell enough to make their clients happy, there is a dark side.

You see, they don't just place ads. They also include other programs that monitor and track your computer and Internet usage. These programs report this information periodically back to the media company, using your Internet connection. There are no controls over what they track and report, or how that information is used or with whom it is shared. You probably don't even know your computer is being used in this way, and there is a good chance you didn't give them permission to do it.

You may start to receive ads from the media company, based on the information collected on your surfing and Internet habits. Of course, more sinister uses are possible.

How does spyware get on your computer? You may have downloaded it when you downloaded new software off the Internet. You also may have downloaded by clicking on a deceptive "pop-up window" that appeared on a website you were surfing.

Once installed, spyware is particularly difficult to remove (we'll address this in the next article). Spyware is notoriously inefficient, using valuable system resources and Internet bandwidth to do its job, leaving less available for you. Often, if you delete the spyware, the free program that you downloaded with it will no longer run.

Common sources of spyware are music and video sharing programs and children's programs. Spyware is often targeted to children and teenagers, as they may be less suspicious and wary of free software than their parents.

How can you tell if spyware has taken hold of your system? You may notice the following symptoms:

  • Pop-up advertisements appear, even when you aren't on the Internet;
  • Your computer takes longer than usual to perform routine tasks;
  • Your computer crashes more frequently, for no known reason;
  • A new toolbar appears on your internet browser that you can't seem to get rid of;
  • Your home page or your browser settings have changed "by themselves"

Many people think there is something wrong with their hardware when the symptoms of spyware first start to appear. Unexplained crashes, slow response time, and strange behaviour from your computer (a changed home page) may lead you to believe your hardware is defective and needs to be replaced. One article I read while researching this topic indicated that spyware could reduce the responsiveness of your computer by up to 50%.

Before you rush out to replace your computer system, check first for spyware. You could save yourself a lot of money and the hassle of setting up a new computer system.

And, if you haven't been infected yet, take the necessary steps to stay spyware-free.

Part 2 - Getting Rid of It

Written on December 24, 2004 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine

Spyware can infect your computer no matter how careful you are. At last count, there were over 78,000 known spyware programs.

Spyware can be used to track your browsing habits and log your keystrokes (think about your user ids, passwords, and credit card numbers). There are also Trojan Horses, programs that run malicious programs on your computer to attack other computers.

You can install spyware without even knowing it. It is often attached to free software or information sites on the web. You want to access information or download something, and in return you agree, in the fine print, to take the spyware as well. Remember to read the license agreements of any shareware or file sharing service you use to see what permissions your are granting to them. Consider if what you want to access is worth the risk to your system. Spyware can also be installed from infected e-mails or by clicking on dubious banner ads when you surf the net.

Good computing practices are not enough. You should install and run at least one antispyware program.

Spyware is clever at hiding itself. Programs known as burrowers hide deep within your computer and are difficult to find and remove. Other programs, known as ticklers, will re-install the spyware after it is removed.

Antispyware, like antivirus programs, identify and remove known threats. While some antivirus programs like McAfee Internet Security and Norton Internet Security do have some anti-spyware capabilities, they are not enough. Here are two good antispyware programs:

Spybot Search & Destroy
Spybot Sweeper

You can do a one-time scan of your computer for free. An annual subscription with updates will cost a small fee. Spybot Sweeper, for example, costs $29.95US for an annual subscription for home computing. Both of these programs were top-rated by PC Magazine.

If you are familiar with antivirus programs, antispyware is much the same to install and run. Here's a quick checklist of what to do:

  1. Back up any critical files before you begin.
  2. Install the antispyware and immediately connect to the developer's website to get any recent updates.
  3. Scan your system and remove the threats. Repeat the scan until no threats appear. Remember that spyware sometimes reinstalls itself after you remove it!
  4. Once your system is free of spyware, scan your system on a regular basis or set the software to shield you from spyware continuously.

Be careful. Removal of some spyware may cause some programs to stop working properly, especially file sharing services. Most antispyware software allows you to restore items that you have removed.

If you are unsure about whether to remove spyware or suspect that not all the spyware has been removed, you can check information sites such as the Pest Control Centre to find out more about a particular program. The Pest Control Centre's website is

Finally, no one antispyware program removes all threats. You may want to run more than one. Your motto should be, "run many, run often".

Don't give up your computer or your identity without a fight. Use antispyware now!

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