There was a time when the only damaging or annoying
things an Internet surfer had to worry about were
viruses and spam. Both of these were pretty easy
to guard against. Now, there's a new plague in town that is
just as damaging to your PC, and it's much harder to prevent.
As if it wasn't bad enough dealing with lovesick teenage geniuses or malicious grudge-bearing people bent on destruction and anarchy, now we have to deal with supposedly legitimate businesses who have started using more unscrupulous measures to get their advertising to us.
The first of these new menaces arrived on the scene a couple of years ago. They were spyware and adware.
Spyware comprises of programs that are usually installed along with something else, usually unknown to the end user. The purpose of this software is to, quite simply, spy on the user (hence the name) and report the user's Internet habits back to whoever created it.
Why would that be allowed? The answer is simple: money.
The original premise was that as spyware anonymously submitted information about the kinds of places you go on the internet, an advertising 'pattern' of what you like would emerge.
This could then allow businesses to provide you with targeted ads that you would be more likely to click. Of course, there are many who believe that this practice is not only an invasion of privacy, but also a massive security risk, since people are unaware of what information is being sent where.
Obviously, since this spyware is sending information, there would be nothing to stop it from sending your usernames and passwords for banking sites.
In the early days of spyware, this only occured on your computer if you downloaded software such as file sharing software. Most general Internet users were never touched. It didn't take too long, however, for other companies selling free software to see the benefits of including, or 'bundling,' spyware with their programs because spyware makers paid them.
Nowadays, a general rule of thumb is, 'If it's free or very cheap, it will very likely have spyware attached.' I have even come across cheap children's games that have had such software installed with them.
Another source of this menace is pop-up windows. They are usually the ones for 'get cool free cursors,' 'your clock may be wrong,' 'click here to get weather alerts,' and even 'your computer may have spyware on it, click to check.' You should never say 'yes' to any pop-up that says 'install this,' no matter how useful a program may sound.
Adware, on the other hand, is software designed to provide you with targeted advertisements. Whereas spyware is potentially a security risk, adware is just plain old-fashioned annoying, suddenly causing banner ads to pop up while there isn't even a browser active, or causing your PC to connect to the Internet for no apparent reason. Adware is installed primarily by the same methods as spyware, by being 'bundled' with free/cheap software or by being installed via pop-ups.
Browser redirects occur when your browser suddenly defaults to a new start page. Gone is cox.net, or msn.com, and suddenly you're faced with 'whenUsearch.com,' or possibly much worse. What is even more frustrating is that when you manually change the start page back to what you originally had, it goes back to the other web site when you close the browser down.
Spyware, adware and redirects can be removed and prevented. There are several free tools out there without attached spyware that can do this. The most reliable are AdAware from www.lavasoft.de, SpyBot, available at safer-networking.org, and Spyware-blaster at javacoolsoftware.com. All of these free programs can set your browser to stop any future installations. SpyBot can also prevent most browser redirects.
How can you tell if you have any of these on your computer? Most of the time you will notice a lot of program crashes and strange shutdowns. Another telltale sign is that your computer will take ages to start up and seem extremely slow even when you only have one or two things open.
If you use the Internet a lot, you need to at least run both AdAware and Spybot regularly to keep your PC healthy.
I would like to wish our wonderful clients and
all of you health, happiness and prosperity
for the holiday season and in 2005.
Terry Young is the founder and CEO of Internet Marketing and Design,
the award winning web and multimedia design agency in Chesapeake.
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