Spyware...Your Computer May Be Watching You

Surfing the Internet one night, you Google song lyrics to use in a birthday card you're making, and then click on the link to a promising site. At the front page, pop-up windows bombard your screen faster than you can close them. In the midst of them is a security message from Microsoft asking you if you want to install a new patch. Figuring this might be the solution to all those pop-up windows, you click "OK." Later, however, you discover mysterious icons on your desktop, and they return even after deleted. What's more, your homepage has been reset to a search engine you've never heard of, and your computer is running a lot more slowly than it used to.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, to many people it does. That "patch" wasn't a software update, but a vicious program known as spyware. Spyware conceals its most dangerous threat: it tracks your Web surfing habits. What it records may be as general as the Web pages you visit or as specific as the keystrokes you enter. Threatening your privacy as well as your computer, spyware hogs system resources and causes other software to crash.

What is Spyware?
Spyware is software that gathers information about your habits and reports the data to unscrupulous companies and individuals. Oftentimes used as a blanket term, spyware encompasses other types of malicious software, such as adware, which displays ads--often as pop-up windows in Web browsers. Ultimately, all its forms are undesirable. Though legitimate programs, such as AOL Instant Messenger, feature adware, they are forthright about their content, displaying ads in the program window itself and selling ad space in lieu of charging you a fee for the program. The majority of adware programs and all spyware programs are not so upfront.

What Does it Look Like?
Adware and spyware programs distribute their undesirable content in many ways. The most popular form of spyware is innocuous-looking free software that offers to perform such fu nctions as searching the Web or displaying weather information. A multi-page End-User License Agreement buries in confusing legalese references to programs that monitor the user's activities. Spyware may also be hidden in pirated software downloaded free or sold over the Internet. Other spyware programs present themselves as browser plug-ins or important software updates; these often appear among other pop-up windows that try to confuse the user.

Sometimes, they may even download themselves surreptitiously; if a user's security preferences are set low enough to allow programs to download automatically, spyware can enter the computer undetected.

What's a Person to Do?
The best solution to the problem of spyware is to avoid downloading it; don't use pirated software and be sure to read End-User License Agreements for free programs before accepting them. While this can be time-consuming, it will save you the significant amount of time you would have spent uninstalling spyware.

Second, if you use Internet Explorer, increase your Internet security level to at least "medium" and ask it to prompt you every time you run ActiveX controls. If you need help with this, contact IT Express at 754-4357 or ithelp@ucdavis.edu, or consider switching to another browser (see "Web Browsers: Dealing with Security Issues and Finding a Browser that Suits Your Needs").

Last, but not least, download anti-spyware and anti-adware programs. As with antivirus programs, these programs should be run and updated regularly. If spyware is already present on your computer, a single program will not, as a rule, catch all of it. It will probably be necessary to use several anti-spyware programs, but because many are free, this shouldn??'t prove costly.

While spyware is a dangerous threat, it needn't prevent you from surfing the Web. With a bit of attention, you should be able to avoid downloading it, and anti- spyware and anti-adware will remove what you don't catch. Spyware is a problem that's not likely to disappear anytime soon, but with diligence, it is a manageable risk of computer use.

For more information on this topic, see the UC Davis Security Web site pages on spyware and adware.