comment - spyware - a modern plague

There is much bad feeling growing out there in the internet world about a devilish little thing called spyware. We are no experts on this matter, but do want our readers to be alerted to the potential damage caused by the ever growing plague.

Spyware is software designed to moniter different aspects of your computer usage, and send the details back out to someone who actually may take an interest. It usually also is tied in closely with advertising. Sounds fair enough (if you don't mind a small invasion of privacy) if the design is to track only what sites you visit so they can target you with more applicable advertising.

The problem is that the intentions of the creators of spyware are not always as straightforward as suggested above. Spyware usually comes bundled with other software (file swapping utilities are notorious for it), and you usually don't even realise you are installing it. Most software vendors cover their backs by burying it deep in the small print of the software licence agreement, but let's face it, how many of us read those before installing software. A few are bundled though with barely a mention, or an entirely misleading concept of what it is there for.

Often spyware will come in the form of a so-called "helper" that remembers what you type in on webpages, so you won't have to type it out every time - what they don't tell you though is they can then retrieve that information to use how they see fit. This information can include secure sites, such as internet banking.

It also comes in other guises, very few of which are beneficial to you, and most potentially very very bad. They also breed like you wouldn't believe - they create holes in the security of your web browser (IE the worst hit), and can run other programs when and where they like. This regrettably means they can do almost anything they want, and one of the worst things they definitely do is install more spyware silently on your system.

I downloaded some software to check for and disable spyware recently, as I knew one or two had made their way onto my system (discovered courtesy of another bit of software). I ran it and gasped at the number of items it found - I cleaned it all up, and then noticed I should download the latest spyware definitions. I then ran the check again with the new definitions, and yes, I gasped again at the number found.

I also discovered through some investigation on the web, that the program that first alerted me to a small presence of spyware on my system, is actually guilty of putting more spyware on my system itself! This is comparable to having a virus scanner that is infected with a virus it doesn't detect!

I personally think that spyware is a plague worse than computer viruses - yeah a virus can annoy you, annoy everyone in your mail program's address book (something I am glad never to have fallen victim to), damage your data, or even shutdown your whole system, but spyware has the potential to steal your personal details, computer data, your lifestyle habits, etc, and give them out to others to use or abuse as they wish. It is a major invasion of privacy, and possible stealing of identity, that so easily happens without you even knowing it.

Now, after harping on about it all, you may want to know how to get help. My first suggestion would be to read more about it from people who do know (refer BBC News for more info and some links), and look for advice on what to do (at places like this).


Posted: 28 November 2002

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