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What is spyware?

Learn what is Spyware and how to prevent it from infecting your computer.

Spyware is an attempt to control a computer's behavior without the user's knowledge. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Spyware is an attempt to control a computer's behavior without the user's knowledge.

Spyware is a generic term that refers to a variety of Internet applications that monitor, or even covertly control the way in which computer users use the Internet. Unlike viruses or computer worms, which can spread from one computer to another, spyware typically seeks to control a single computer's behavior without the user's consent or knowledge. According to the Anti-Spyware Coalition, spyware applications install without warning and reinstall after removal, open security holes, hijack data and take control of software behavior. At its worst, spyware can facilitate financial fraud or identity theft by transferring data believed to be secure to another location.

In spite of its reputation, spyware initially was not developed to damage computers and networks in the way that viruses and Trojan horses do. Instead, it was developed to boost sagging shareware sales, to control the cost of online advertising delivery and to facilitate peer-to-peer networks. By tracking user preferences and reducing the user's conscious choices, vendors believed they could make the browsing and purchasing experience more transparent. Unfortunately, the line between facilitating user experience and invading personal privacy became more and more difficult to maintain, and spyware applications became increasingly invasive. As a result, Congress introduced anti-spyware legislation that would punish those using spyware to gain access a computer with up to five years in prison.

Types of Spyware

According to CNET, spyware falls into seven different categories with consequences that vary from annoying to damaging:

  • Cookies, which create histories of Web site activity
  • Cross-site cookies, which track activities across multiple sites
  • Bundled applications, which can be installed without warning
  • Laundering applications, which facilitate illegal activity without the user's knowledge
  • Pop-up applications that divert users to a competing Web site
  • Applications that can't be removed and can slow or damage the computer
  • Hijackers that take control of the Web browser away from the user
  • Software that attempts to financially charge the user
  • Software that transmits the user's personal data to another site or server

Spyware in Action

Critics consider spyware to be "malware," or essentially malicious software. Software developers often refer to it as "adware," software applications in which advertising banners are displayed while the program is being run, and treat it as an inconvenience or sometimes even a useful Internet tool. (Many cookies allow a site to remember the user's past settings and preferences.) Still others see it as a necessary consequence of users not paying shareware developers for use of their applications.

Users may believe they are installing useful utilities, when in fact the utility triggers the installation of spyware without their knowledge. Spyware utilities that have gained public attention include Bonzi Buddy, which targeted children with an appealing purple gorilla, and HuntBar, a browser toolbar that hijacked users who attempted to access competing search engines. Sony attached a rootkit that was installed with music CDs as an attempt to protect music copyrights, but inadvertently allowed hackers to gain access to users' computers. Even worse, users who tried to remove the rootkit damaged their Windows operating systems in the attempt.

Spyware Removal

Symptoms of a spyware attack include increasingly slow network response, system crashes and the proliferation of pop-up windows in browser software. On occasion, users may have to reformat their hard drives and reinstall system software to remedy the problem. Deleting the application, running a program's uninstall feature or system software, or even using the operating system's "add/remove" features may be inadequate for spyware removal.

StopBadware.org warns that anti-virus and anti-spyware applications should be used to remove spyware as soon as possible. Users should research available anti-spyware programs that effectively detect, block and remove the malicious code. The application should maintain a database of spyware signatures and automatically download the updates. Computer manufacturers and Internet service providers also frequently offer basic anti-spyware utilities.

It is important to be cautious when purchasing security software. A new variation on spyware is the ironically-named anti-spyware software, often marketed as a security safeguard. Users install what appear to be free utilities to scan their hard drives for spyware and then have to pay if they want to uninstall the application. Additionally, the software usually doesn't detect other spyware well and isn't supported by the vendor.

Preventing Spyware

Users who frequently access the Internet can employ a number of countermeasures to prevent spyware infiltration. The best protection is to think critically before accepting the terms of an online agreement or downloading an application. Read the terms carefully before clicking on any link and only download files from sources known to be trustworthy. Some experts recommend that Windows users avoid using Internet Explorer because its interconnection with the Windows operating system makes their computers particularly vulnerable to attack. While no browser is completely safe, other browsers such as Firefox or Opera may offer more protection.

Additional suggestions include:

  • Installing a personal firewall
  • Installing parental control software on computers that children access
  • Checking with service providers to see what security programs they provide
  • Conducting routine virus scans
  • Adjusting browser and operating system preferences to restrict automatic downloads

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