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Spyware - definitions, statistics, prevention and removal

What is spyware?

Generally speaking, spyware is software that gathers information about a person without his or her knowledge or conscious permission. Some of it can be fairly harmless, just tracking your activities in order to display relevant advertising (aka adware), but other types of spyware can take a great deal of control over your system - setting your start page to a particular site and forcing your browser to load specific pages during your surfing sessions. It can also be used as a conduit for installing other programs, such as keyloggers that record your keystrokes, history, passwords, and other confidential and private information.

Other sneaky spyware tricks

I was chatting with a colleague via IM a few days ago and he mentioned that he was getting a flashing message in his system tray and also windows alerts stating he had spyware on his computer. That was indeed true, but the alerts were actually being generated by the malware itself. 

In case you haven't read about this kind of thing, there's a stack of unscrupulous "anti-spyware" companies out there that create malware to infect systems and then offer a solution to remove it - for a price of course. In some cases, the software that they provide does nothing to clear up other spyware infections, just their own. In a few cases, it doesn't even do that.

There's been many companies brought before the FTC for this type of scam; and some of them have been severely whacked by the government for their nefarious activities. Unfortunately, for every parasite that's shut down, there's soon another to take their place.

Finding and removing spyware

This type of spyware is often easy enough to remove at no cost using a *real* anti-spyware program such as Spybot Search and Destroy - cool name huh? Gotta love dramatic software titles!

Spybot is freeware, but if you find it useful, try to send the author a few bucks as a donation. It's a good utility to have on hand at all times as many anti-virus programs do not pick up on spyware. Run it regularly and remember to *update* it as new spyware applications are being released every day. Even if you don't think you have spyware on your computer, give it a whirl; you may be surprised.

In case of my colleague's computer, while we managed to clear the majority of the issues using SpyBot, it was looking as though one piece of malware was going to have to be removed manually. It would constantly return after being "cleaned". A manual removal means using other utilities specifically designed to target this malware, edits to the registry and chasing up files all over his hard drive. It's a time consuming and frustrating process, not to mention unnerving for the owner of the compromised system - messing around in the registry can cause other problems.

We did manage to remove the remaining recalcitrant malware without manual intervention, but more through good luck than skill :). I wish I could tell you how it was achieved, but I'm not totally sure. I believe it was through having Spybot and another program called Ewido scanning/cleaning at the same time; not an action I'd recommend :).

Another very freeware tool to have on hand is HijackThis. It's a free utility that scans your  computer to locate settings that may have been changed by spyware, malware or other nasties. It generates a list of items that load when Windows does that you can then research to determine if they are a threat. If you do locate a threat, HiJack this can remove it from your startup. Just a word of warning, it's not a tool you should use if you aren't overly familiar with how your computer operates, and always use the backup feature in HijackThis just in case. 

Spyware statistics

Spyware infections are extraordinarily prevalent. Data I gained from Aladdin.com regarding spyware in the wild shows that:

15% are a severe threat - keyloggers and other applications that send sensitive information such as passwords to the spyware controller.

25% are a moderate threat - sends information such as host name, processes running on the computer, internal IP addresses, versions of software on target machine.

60% are a minor threat - sends information of commercial value such as browsing habits; keywords used for searching.

In a survey carried out by AOL and the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) in late 2005:

- 81% of home PCs lacked either up-to-date AV software, spyware protection or a firewall 

- 69% of computers in homes with children under age 18 had spyware/adware 

How does spyware end up on your computer?

Many of these applications are piggy-backed onto other free software that you download or receive via email and are installed without your knowledge. In the instance mentioned above, the spyware touted itself to be a multimedia utility. 

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Even if a spyware application doesn't appear to be all that malicious, there's the danger that others will take advantage of your exploited system for darker purposes - to the point they may be able to take total control of your computer or install keyloggers. 

You really need to be careful when downloading free software - run a search on the software being offered to see if there's reports of it being spyware and also read the license when installing. Software licenses are rather boring and lengthy, but some spyware authors bank on people clicking "yes" to the license agreement - therefore making it a legal installation.

Spyware and virus threats multiply dramatically if your computer is used by others. Just like your car or home, nobody will care as much about the integrity of your PC than you; especially if it's used as part of your online business.

As demonstrated in the survey results above, this especially applies to home based business where your children may have access to your PC. I long ago lost count of how many times during my mobile computer services days I heard from a doting parent, "My child is a whiz on the computer". Never mistake the lack of fear for knowledge or wisdom; I made a living partly due to the damage that "whiz-kids" caused to their parents PC's. I met very few "whize kids" during my servicing days :).

If you run a home based online business, help protect your computer from and your customers from spyware, viruses and hackers by implementing these simple security strategies and tips 

Of course, the best solution is to not let *anyone* else touch your computer. Let the buck stop with you and I'm sure your customers would prefer that too.

Employers and spyware

By the way, there's another type of spyware that, depending on the country you live in, may be totally legal. That type is the software installed by employers to monitor their employees. In many ways, it's just like some of the more malicious programs in terms of operation - it can record when you are working on your computer and what you are doing while on it. 

I was speaking to a programmer a while back who was telecommuting for a large software firm - he was being monitored by the company every second of the day whilst he was on shift. 

Not only would the spyware report if he was working on something, but it would also capture screenshots of what he was working on. There was nothing sneaky about this monitoring, the employer was quite up front about it as a condition of employment. 

Still, it leaves me thinking that if you need to go to those extremes to monitor your staff, that says a lot about the company and the relations they have with their employees.

Even in countries where this degree of monitoring is quite legal, employees should always be made aware of it as part of their contract. So, the next time you're starting a new contract, check for company policy regarding the monitoring of staff computer activities.

Related learning resources

Spam and virus emails - how they end up in your inbox 

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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In the interests of transparency and disclosure, please note that the owner of Taming the Beast.net often receives goods and services mentioned in reviews for free, or may receive payments or affiliate commissions for advertising or referring others to merchants of products and services reviewed.

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