posted on Jul, 1 2003 @ 01:24 PM
Beware Spyware - It's Watching You!
Thu Jun 26, 8:24 AM ET
Jim Louderback - ExtremeTech
I am not a promiscuous web surfer. I don't talk with strange web sites, I don't invite exotic programs into my home, and I don't share secrets with
voluptuous pop-up windows.
So you can imagine my surprise, when I ran a simple spyware sweeper and discovered that 38 separate little programs had burrowed inside my computer
and were watching my every move. Yup, like so many of you, my privacy had been violated and I didn't even know it.
Viruses have been around so long that most of us have figured out how to stay safe. But there's another -- potentially more dangerous -- threat that
may have already secretly infiltrated your system. It's called spyware, and it has reached epidemic proportions. According to respected research firm
GartnerG2, more than 20 million PCs in the US are infected – and that number seems low to me.
What is spyware? Loosely any program that sits on your system and watches what you do. One type of spyware, called adware, observes your web-surfing
habits, and then delivers targetted banner and pop-up ads to your web browser, based on those preferences. Others, even more depraved, can capture
every key you press, saving them to either a local file or to a machine half a world away.
In most cases, you downloaded that spyware yourself when you installed another program or visited a wanton website. Shareware and freeware are
notorious conduits, installing a wide range of pernicious applications that track what you do and where you go on the web. The popular file sharing
application Kazaa installs a nasty application called Cydoor – which then loads and runs without your knowledge. Cydoor downloads programs to your PC,
along with ads and other nonsense.
Other spyware programs, with wacky names like Xupiter and Gator, actually gather personal information stored on your PC – including which programs are
installed and what web-browser you run -- and then transmit it to their corporate servers.
And Kazaa competitor Grokster downloads an incredible 13 different spyware applications -- Cydoor, Gator and eleven others – all designed to ferret
out your personal habits, preferences and secrets.
The Real Nasty Stuff: But those are chicken feed compared to the possibly disastrous spy programs – called key loggers or system monitors -- that
actually watch and record everything you do. These scary programs, with names like WinWhatWhere and Back Orifice, essentially save every letter,
number and word you type into your PC, and then use the internet to transmit that information anywhere in the world.
These programs steal credit cards and passwords – imagine the resulting mischief if your eBay password or Visa card were hijacked. Often they get
installed by jealous lovers, who want to discover whether honey-pie is instant messaging (news - web sites) with his old teammates or his old
At work, your boss, a competitor, or that snot-nosed kid in the nearby cubicle could be watching everything you do – just waiting to steal your next
big idea, or catch you goofing off.
Some of these nasty programs even secretly turn on your webcam, and covertly spy on you while you use your PC.
In the past, delinquents had to actually touch your PC to install these key-loggers and system monitors. But more ruthless versions have recently been
unleashed that can be installed via email – without you ever knowing about it. Open a seemingly benign message from your husband or your boss, and
suddenly he knows everything you do on your PC – even when you secretly shake and shimmy to Brittany Spears.
You would think this stuff would be against the law, and in many cases it is. But often you actually opened up the door, rolled out the red carpet,
and invited the rogue program to sleep in your bed. How? Remember that legalese you ignored while installing a recently downloaded program? When you
clicked OK, you might have agreed to share all your precious computing secrets with some nameless, faceless corporation. And who knows what they're
going to do with it!
So what do you do? Two or three years ago your options were limited. But recently we've seen an explosion of software products that will detect this
nasty stuff, and then remove it from your system. Even better, some of these programs are actually free.
And you'll really need one of these programs too. You used to be able to avoid spyware by simply practicing safe computing habits – never downloading
applications, deleting mail from strangers, and avoiding pop-up windows and banners. But those days are over, as more sophisticated spyware programs
get hidden inside normal looking websites, pop-up windows and emails.
Another reason why these spyware detectors are a good idea: it's often not possible to eradicate them by yourself. Even if you located and deleted
the program files on your hard drive, like weeds, many spyware programs have an uncanny ability to reinstall themselves when you turn your back.
Spyware management programs can be broken up into two basic categories. The first, called scanners, simply rifle through your computer's hard drive
and system memory to tell you which shameless sneaks have wormed their way in. These are often free – and some are even web-based, which means you
don't have to download anything at all. I ended up using a free scanner called Spy Sweeper, from WebRoot Software to uncover those 38 interlopers on
The second, more powerful type of application, will then eradicate that spyware from your system. The more advanced will first quarantine those rogue
programs into a walled-off area of your PC – this de-activates the program, but lets you selectively re-install them to run a dependent application –
like Kazaa or Grokster. The programs typically cost around $30 or so – although 30 day trial versions are usually available for free.
Of course there is a third option. If you really want to avoid spyware you can unplug your phone-line or broadband connection from your PC, lock it in
a closet and only compute in the dark. Don't laugh, this is what some folks in our government actually do. For the rest of us, a good anti-spyware
application is not only a good idea, it's almost mandatory these days. Unless you don't mind your life really becoming an open book.
Jim Louderback is the Editor-in-Chief for Internet sites at Ziff Davis Media, which runs the popular technology sites PCMag.com and eWeek.com, along
with print magazines like PC Magazine, eWEEK, Electronic Gaming Monthly and Computer Gaming World. Jim's first adventure with computers began with
playing Star Trek during high-school on a PDP-11. Since then he's developed applications and installed networks for many Fortune 500 companies. For
the last 12 years he's been reporting on the technology industry in print, radio, television and the Web.