Originally published April 18, 2003

Software prevents spyware from taking over

It was one year ago in this column that I first addressed the issue of spyware, those insidious programs that lurk undetected on your system, tracking personal information for marketing purposes. Spyware is responsible for the seemingly endless stream of pop-up ads that tile themselves like dominos on your task bar. This Internet menace has not ebbed in a year and shows no sign of going away anytime soon.

Nary a day goes by that I'm not prompted to install some program that seems to be a prerequisite for the page I'm trying to view. "Would you like to install and run..." starts the text in the apparently trusted dialog box. They're always offering some slick feature guaranteed to improve my computing experience. Would you like to make sure your computer always has the correct date and time? Or perhaps you'd like the local weather always available?  Seems innocuous enough, but agreeing to install these programs brings with it a host of processes that consume system resources, slow your computer and invade your privacy. Sometimes merely clicking on a particular link or agreeing to an End User License Agreement is enough to deposit tracking files on your computer.

Spyware is any software that commandeers a user's Internet connection, without their knowledge or explicit permission, to collect personal information. Most users don't realize that they're agreeing to such snoopware but many websites are "enhanced" with spyware partners that employ stealth tactics to dupe you into accepting their products. Even innocently clicking on a close button can leave tracking cookies on your hard disk. Always take the time to carefully read the fine print before you click in haste just to get rid of a pushy dialog box.

Comet Cursor, Gator, Bonzi Buddy and Alexa are among the most heinous offenders. Realize that by allowing these products on your computer, you understand that the software will connect to the Internet and download advertisements to your computer as long as you're online. Is that really what you intended when you agreed to synchronize your computer's clock to the U.S. Atomic clock?

The antidote I recommended a year ago has only improved over the last year. Ad-Aware, by the Swedish company Lavasoft, has kept pace with the increasing barrage of spyware products and recently launched a new version as well as a website makeover that makes this product easier than ever to use. Basic Ad-Aware is available as a free download and is now integrated with the ability to check for new reference updates online.

When you run Ad-Aware, it deep scans the registry and all disks looking for those intrusive files that threaten your privacy. Ad-Aware prompts you to delete these files and keeps a back up, in case you need to restore your computer to its previous state.

Ad-Aware Plus and Professional versions sell for $27 and $40 respectively add the additional benefit of blocking these parasites before they can ever invade your system. When I installed Ad-Aware Plus, Ad-watch monitoring was added to my system tray to stand vigil against spyware. Ad-Watch is proactive and thwarts browser hijacks, Active-X installations and a variety of data mining operations.

Since it's almost impossible to keep spyware off your system, this utility is increasingly a must for all users, even if it's just the freeware version.

Cathi Schuler is an Assistant Professor for the School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of the Pacific. She also owns a business software training company, CeePrompt!  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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