Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : July 2005

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 TECHNOLOGY TALK:

BY JOHN ANDERSON  

"Spy Where?"
By John Anderson

Spyware on your computer? It’s more likely than you think. Ninety percent of Internet-connected computers are infected with some form of spyware. If you surf the Internet, send e-mail, share files, chat with an instant messenger or have ever downloaded a “free” program, chances are high that your system is now infected with spyware.

At the very least, spyware is a nuisance – slowing down your computer, taking up hard drive space with useless junk and marking you as a target for advertisers. Beyond intruding on your privacy, spyware can also be used as a tool to gather personal information used in identify theft schemes.

What is Spyware?
Spyware is any software downloaded and installed on your computer without your knowledge that performs certain tasks on your computer, typically without your consent. This may include giving you advertising or collecting personal information about you.

Most often the information is gathered in order to study consumers’ Internet surfing habits, such as websites visited, type of Internet connection and time spent online. After they retrieve this information, the data is then used or sold to other companies. Once the spyware is installed on your computer it can trigger pop-up ads targeted at your perceived interests and, if the spyware has found your e-mail addresses, spam.

Advertisers are delighted when they acquire such valuable marketing information so easily; in the past, marketers had to spend thousands of dollars on contests and registration surveys to learn your preferences. Gaining your preferences by stealth using software spies is far easier and offers a much more complete picture for the marketing industry; as a result, spyware is everywhere.

Many times you can receive spyware just by visiting a website in the form of a drive-by download. A drive-by download occurs when software is automatically downloaded and installed on a user’s machine without the consent or knowledge of the user. The invisibility of the drive-by download is what makes this form of installation especially sneaky. Many users never realize the program is being downloaded, installed and running because they are never prompted or notified.

So, How Do You Know If You Have Spyware?
While there is plenty of content available on the Internet that is safe from spyware, there are many free and nearly-free software packages that contain spyware. Here’s how spyware ends up on your hard drive and what you can do to prevent it.

The most common methods used to trick you into installing spyware:

Opening spam e-mail
Clicking on deceptive pop-ups
Downloading free utilities, games, toolbars, media players, etc.
File-sharing programs
Visiting corrupt websites
Mainstream software applications

Check your security settings. A low security setting allows cookies and spyware programs to easily be stored on your computer. A few things that you can do in order to keep spyware off your computer include setting your Internet security at the default level or higher, evaluating what you download, downloading current operating systems updates and installing an anti-spyware program on your computer to catch all that you miss. Anti-spyware will find and delete spyware that your computer unwittingly accepts.

Be suspicious. If the source doesn’t seem familiar or trustworthy, don’t open the e-mail, click the popup or visit the site. Get your software from a source that you trust; sometimes the free ones are not worth the price you pay in frustration. Spyware that was installed along with downloaded software may still exist even after these programs have been removed from your system.

How to Remove Spyware
Type “spyware” into your favorite browser and you will find millions of results for software, articles and tips to help you with your spyware woes. Many are free, but if you want tech support, software updates and ease of use you will probably be spending $30 to keep the spies out.

Here are a few quick tips:

When you install anti-spyware, make sure that it starts automatically with Windows. This will ensure that you are protected at all times.

Update your software frequently to make sure that you are protected from any new spyware software.

If you are a frequent downloader you may want to use more than one anti-spyware program. Each works a little differently and may detect spyware that others do not.

Also, if using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer you can turn off its ability to run scripts without your permission. In Internet Explorer (IE), click Tools > Internet Options > Security. Select the Earth icon under “Select a Web content zone”, and then Custom Level. Disable “Download unsigned ActiveX controls”, “Initialize and script ActiveX controls not marked as safe”, “Active scripting”, and “Scripting of Java applets”. Then set Java permissions to High Safety.

Of course, with scripting disabled some of your favorite websites may no longer be usable. But there is a solution. In IE, go to Tools > Internet Options > Security > Trusted Sites > Sites and enter the URLs of known safe sites requiring scripting, one at a time. Uncheck “Require server verification” for all sites in this zone, then click on OK.

A few of the most popular anti-spyware programs are Adaware (www.lavasoft.com), Spyware Doctor (www.pctools.com) and Spybot (www.spybot.info). Each has a wide variety of features that will let you protect our computer from sneaky software.

CNet’s Download.com (www.download.com/Spyware-Center/2001-2023_4-0.html?tag=stbc.gp) offers articles and tutorials in their Spyware Center to help you remove existing spyware and protect you from future installation attempts.

They also offer removal tools that are sorted by user rating and price (and, yes, there are quite a few that are free).

Spyware is annoying and can lead to some serious headaches, but if you take the appropriate precautions you can avoid troubles and keep your PC clean.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: July, 2005

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