CeePrompt! Computer Connection
April 08, 2002

Who's spying on you??

It's a sad fact of life that whenever something really good comes along, there's always a killjoy in the crowd ready to taint the experience in the interest of a quick buck.  The Internet began in earnest as a national defense tool, later evolving into a collaborative medium for scientists and educators. It then seemed to morph overnight into the commercial behemoth that we know today. This evolutionary process is not necessarily bad, but with the commercialization of the Internet has come a smarmy element of gold diggers and get-rich-quick schemers that seem to be growing more intrusive by the day.

It's enough already that we have to tolerate the daily avalanche of junk mail, but now one can hardly have a casual Internet stroll without being bombarded with window after window of ads for everything from hidden cameras to porn paraphernalia. Oftentimes I have to close five or six windows, before I can actually reach the intended page.

This relentless commercialism is generically dubbed adware and refers to any software application in which advertising banners are displayed while the program is running. Web site owners justify these intrusive ads as a means of recouping development costs.

While adware is annoying, it's not nearly as invasive as its more devious cousin, spyware. Spyware refers to programs that are actually installed on the computer system, usually without the user's express permission or knowledge. Spyware collects demographic and usage information from your computer and shares this with advertisers.

Spyware differs from cookies, in that cookies are data files written to your hard drive by a Web server in order to identify you to the site. Spyware products are executable programs that can potentially perform any number of activities on your computer including scanning files, monitoring chat programs, changing default web pages and tracking your web activity. This information is relayed to the spyware author and in turn sold to other companies for target marketing.

Before you cry foul, realize spyware is not illegal and most users actually agree to its use, albeit unwittingly. Anytime you download products from the Internet, especially freeware, you're at risk of downloading spyware as a piggyback program. When you hastily click "I Agree" to the licensing terms, you're also agreeing to accept whatever additional software may be bundled into the fine print. The language is often couched in palatable terms, such as "this program may include software that will occasionally notify you of important news."

Any such monitoring software is in fact tracking your computing activities, no matter how candy-coated the licensing lingo seems. Popular spyware, alternately called snoopware, are Gator, Comet Cursor, BonziBuddy, Cydoor and GoHip!, among others.

I'm as guilty as anyone, rushing through a software installation without scrutinizing the agreement. I routinely download free upgrades, applets and other software from the Internet, and never made the connection between a barrage of SaveNow ads and my recent downloads. I also thought it odd that Internet Explorer was no longer my default browser.

As it turns out, an actual program had been installed on my computer, called SaveNow. This spyware program was monitoring my activities, collecting personal data and broadcasting the news to any number of advertisers. It was also attempting to change my default browser settings.

SaveNow did appear in my list of Add/Remove programs, and there was an uninstall icon in the SaveNow folder, allowing me to remove the program from my system. After additional research, I downloaded and installed an anti-adware program called Ad-Aware 5.7, paying particular attention to the licensing agreement before clicking "I Agree." It's not enough, apparently, to have anti-virus software; now we need anti-adware software too!

This freeware product, from Lavasoft, scans your computer for adware and spyware products and safely removes them. Ad-Aware found a second program called Alexa, which was hiding stealthily as well as SaveNow entries in the Windows Registry that were trying to escape the previous uninstall process.

Be especially vigilant when downloading audio or music sharing programs such as Kazaa, AudioGalaxy, and Morpheus. Embedded spyware applications have been associated with these downloads. To see if your favorite download is tainted with spyware, visit http://www.tom-cat.com/spybase/spylist.html

Ad-Aware by Lavasoft http://www.lsfileserv.com/

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.  


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