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What is Spyware?

In general, Spyware is any technology that aids in gathering information about a person or organization without their knowledge. On the Internet, Spyware is programme that is put in someone's computer to secretly gather information about the user and relay it to advertisers or other interested parties. Spyware can get in a computer as a software virus or as the result of installing a new program.
Data collecting programs that are installed with the user's knowledge are not, properly speaking, Spyware, so long as the user fully understands what data is being collected and with whom it is being shared.

What is Adware?

Adware is any software application in which advertising banners are displayed while the program is running. The authors of these applications include additional code that delivers the ads, which can be viewed through pop-up windows or through a bar that appears on a computer screen. The justification for Adware is that it helps recover programming development cost and helps to hold down the cost for the user.
Adware has been criticized for occasionally including code that tracks a user's personal information and passes it on to third parties, without the user's authorization or knowledge. This practice has been dubbed Spyware and has prompted an outcry from computer security and privacy advocates, including the Electronic Privacy Information Centre.

How did it get there?

There are three major ways unsolicited commercial software can make its way on to your machine:

Some freeware programs are ‘bundled’ with parasites, which are installed at the same time. P2P file-sharing programs are notorious for this; in particular, iMesh and Grokster come with countless unwanted add-ons.

Often when you install the software it will warn you about this, and it is sometimes possible to opt out. So always skim the licence agreement when you install and don’t just click Next-Next-Next... but you still can’t be sure they’ll tell you.

Many parasites load using Internet Explorer’s ActiveX installation option. When a web page includes a link to an ActiveX program, a window will appear asking the user wishes to execute it. If ‘Yes’ is clicked (or if IE security settings are set lower than normal, so that it never even asks), the software is allowed to run and can do anything at all it likes on our computer, including installing parasites.

For this reason, you should never click ‘Yes’ to a “Do you wish to download and install...” prompt unless you are 100% sure you trust the publisher of the software, which might not be the publisher of the web site you are viewed — read the dialogue box very carefully.

Sometimes sites (or pop-up ads) try to fool you into clicking ‘Yes’ by stating that the software is necessary to view the site, or opening endless error windows if you click ‘No’, or claiming that the digital certificate on the code means it is safe. It means no such thing. ‘Microsoft Authenticode’, signed by companies like Verisign, means only that the company that wrote the software is the same as the company whose name appears on the download prompt — nothing more.

Some of the really sleazy parasites, particularly homepage-hijackers and diallers, work by exploiting security holes in Internet Explorer, i.e. ways of getting code to run that are not supposed to be possible.

You can do your best to guard against this by ensuring you have the latest updates and patches from Microsoft. However, there are usually a handful of security holes that have not yet been corrected, so you can never be 100% sure you are safe.

One way of reducing your risk of exploitation is to go to Tools->Internet Options->Security and set the security level for the Internet Zone to ‘High’. (If no slider is visible, click ‘Default level to make it appear first.) Then set the security level for the Trusted Zone to ‘Medium’ and add the sites you use and trust to this zone; you may need to do this quite often as many badly-designed sites just won’t work in high-security mode.

An alternative solution for the last two problems is just to use a different web browser for everyday browsing, and Internet Explorer only for sites you trust that stubbornly refuse to work with other browsers.

How do I know if I have Spyware on my machine and how do I remove it?

The best way to protect against Spyware is to run an application that identifies and removes it. There are software packages that sweep away everything from cookies to Adware to Trojans. These tools operate much like antivirus software. The software developers have identified hundreds of Spyware files, folders, and Registry keys and search for them on your hardware, offering to remove them when they turn up.

If you treasure your privacy, these tools are essential. Even if you locate Spyware on your own, manually deleting it is difficult. Some Spyware includes tricklers, which reinstall files as you delete them. An Anti-Spyware program is more likely to be able to eliminate the offenders.

Like virus developers, Internet spymasters race to stay ahead of removal products. Many Anti-Spyware programmes are free or offer free trials, we recommend you at least scan your system to find out what's really on your PC.

Shoalnet/Fastrac recommends Ad-Aware SE Personal and Spybot Search and Destory to remove Adware and Spyware. You can download them from our Software Download section on the left.

For Walkthroughs on how to use Ad-Aware and Spybot, see our Walkthrough section on the left.


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