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Looking Over Your Shoulder: Spyware, Adware, and You

 Security & Privacy

In a previous entry, I discussed how to speed up your PC.  One of the commonest causes of slowdowns, and one of the worst, is spyware.  This article is about how to detect and remove spyware from your system.

What the heck is spyware, anyway?  Spyware is software installed on your computer which reports on you, usually to a company that wants to target you with ads.  For instance, if you visit a lot of sports-related web sites you might get ads for discounted baseball tickets. Most spyware has also been adware, a program that displays ads on your screen, either in a separate pop-up window, or replacing advertising on the web pages you visit.  If a new window containing a commercial message regularly opens on your screen, there's a good chance your system has spyware/adware.  Spyware/adware slows your computer down by stealing time on your processor and space in your memory to run itself, by opening windows you didn't ask for (like multiple ads appearing whenever you click on a link), and by using up your Internet bandwidth reporting back to the maker about what you're doing.   I've seen computers that took as long as 4 minutes to open a word processor window because of spyware problems.  After a spyware cleaning, the time was 5 seconds.

People ask about the difference between spyware and viruses.  A virus generally infects the computer without the user knowing, and does directly harmful things like erasing data or using your computer to send spam.  Spyware often asks permission before installing, and most spyware doesn't intentionally harm your system, it just tries to sell you something using advertising.  However, there is overlap--some spyware is spread like a virus, and some spyware will report personal information that can be used for identity theft. 

Yes, spyware usually asks permission to install, but it is not always very honest about it.  A typical method would be to have the software automatically download when you visit a particular web page.  A window appears on your screen asking, "YOUR BROWSER IS OUT OF DATE.  THIS CAN LEAD TO VIRUS INFECTION. DO YOU WANT TO UPDATE YOUR BROWSER?"  Click "Yes" and you have just installed spyware.  Some adware does honestly state that it is software which will show advertising on your screen.  Very few of these programs inform you that they will be reporting on your activities to the maker of the program.

One thing almost all spyware does do: it makes itself hard to remove.  To get rid of adware and spyware, you'll probably need special tools.  That's what FindApp is here for: to give you the software tools you need.

There are two basic ways to detect spyware (and viruses).   Protector Plus 2009 uses the "signature-based" technique.  Every time a file is opened, Protector Plus scans it and compares it to a list of known spyware and virus files.  If a malicious program is detected, the program offers to quarantine it or delete it.

The other type of spyware detection is behavior based.  Mamutu watches for particular things that spyware and viruses often do, such as modifying certain Windows system files.  This type of protection is particularly useful for what experts call "zero day" problems.  If a particular spyware program is brand new, its "signature" is not yet known and signature based programs can't detect it, but it still acts like spyware and so Mamutu can still block it.

Of course, if you'd like to be protected by both methods, you should investigate a-squared Anti-Malware.  a-squared combines a signature-based system with behavioral testing in one package.

Every anti-virus and anti-spyware programs has its own unique combination of features.  You can test leading packages free of charge by downloading them from FindApp.  Please evaluate the software in our Antivirus category.

John M.

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