Term of the Week: Spyware and Adware
The previous article in this series showed what spam is and why it is so difficult to eliminate. This article looks at the problems of spyware and adware, the real dangers they pose, and the relatively easy preventative measures you can take.
The category of software called adware is an annoyance that has grown in magnitude in the last few years. As its name implies, the software programmer or vendor makes their money by inserting ads in the software. Often, the software tracks your web surfing habits, reports them to a central ad tracking database, and uses that information to know which ads to send you based on what it thinks your interests are. This kind of software is most frequently found in free internet downloads. In fact, some of the first popular programs to make widespread use of adware techniques were the p2p file sharing clients that popularized MP3 music swapping online. Most users did not initially realize the p2p software they were installing carried adware. So, whenever you download software to install it, be sure you read the terms and license conditions carefully. Although annoying, most adware vendors today are legitimate enough to at least explain somewhere in their licensing terms or installation that they are installing ad programs like this.
A more insidious variation of this adware is spyware. Instead of collecting web surfing information for ads though, spyware attempts to collect information secretly. Spyware might try to log your keystrokes (so your spouse who installed it can see what you've been typing at 3 a.m.). Or spyware might be installed as part of a worm or trojan horse (see Term of the Week: Malware) and attempt to log your keystrokes when you visit your bank web site or a retailer site to attempt to collect banking or credit card account numbers to defraud you. Whatever the spyware is doing, it generally has the ability to transmit whatever it collects over the internet to whoever installed it.
The biggest dangers from adware and spyware are the loss of privacy and the potential for fraud. These two reasons alone should be enough to convince anyone to be vigilant in keeping these off their computers. Beyond those though, adware and spyware are frequently poorly written software and can suck up computing resources (including your internet bandwidth) and cause crashes. (To be fair though, the same can be said of many commercial legitimate programs. But the problems are harder to trace and remediate with spyware or adware especially if you don't know it is there.)
The spyware and adware problem is easy to control but so many computer users are unaware of it, that it is currently out of control. A June 2003 survey by the National Cyber Security Alliance found that a whopping 91% of broadband internet users have some spyware installed on their system. Computer hardware and software vendors are alarmed by the huge percentages of technical support calls they receive that are caused by computer problems from spyware, costing them millions of dollars in support costs for problems they didn't create. For example at Dell, 4% of all tech support calls in 2003 were traced to spyware problems and in early 2004, that number had already surged to 15% at one point. Microsoft reports half of all application crashed reported to them result from spyware.
Luckily, as a protection against spyware and adware, some anti-virus software now protects against spyware and adware as well. There are also standalone programs that will scan your computer for spyware and alert you if an installer is attempting to install spyware so you can stop it. But, the same National Cyber Security Alliance survey found that 62% of users don't regularly update their anti-virus software. So, the benefits that updated anti-virus software would provide against spyware and adware are largely lost.
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Jim Minatel is a freelance writer for Developer.com in addition to working with Wiley and WROX publishing.