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    Spyware computer infestations can be costly

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business in Vancouver June 14-20, 2005; issue 816

    High Tech Office column

    Despite rising awareness of spyware, most home and business computers remain infested, according to security software firm Webroot. The company's 2005 State of Spyware survey suggested 88 per cent of home and 87 per cent of business PCs were home to one or more unwanted programs.

    Spyware refers to software that's installed on a computer without clear user permission. It runs in the background and may track and report online or other computer activities, launch ads, alter computer settings and even steal personal information.

    These multiple unwanted programs sap computer performance and lead to instability that can make users think viruses have infected their computers.

    While many spyware programs launch ads, not all ad-supported software is spyware. Eudora Mail and the Opera Web browser, for instance, offer users a choice between free versions that display ads and paid versions that are ad-free; neither use pop-up ads without user consent and neither secretly "phone home" reporting on user activity.

    Spyware, Webroot suggests, is turning into big business. Activities such as hijacking home pages, redirecting Web searches and stealing Web traffic generate an estimated US$2 billion in ad revenue. The Internet Advertising Bureau says spyware-related ads represent nearly 25 per cent of all online advertising.

    Spyware researcher Ben Edelman reports that some of the biggest online advertisers, including American Express, Disney, Expedia and Sprint, distribute advertising via such unwanted software.

    Webroot's data suggests that over 50 per cent of business computers and nearly 60 per cent of home systems are infested with some form of unwanted advertising software.

    Each system in the sample averaged almost seven different unwanted programs.

    The good news is that this is an improvement over last year's survey, which reported an average of 28 spyware programs per PC.

    Ironically, one way spyware has been getting onto users computers lately is through Web ads offering to help control spyware. Such ads often offer to scan your computer for spyware, display false results, then offer to sell an anti-spyware application. Studies suggest that these advertised utilities range from ineffective to malicious.

    Don't buy any spyware protection software advertised online.

    Installations of less harmful but often unwanted software tied into programs many users want or need are also growing. Macromedia's popular free Shockwave or Flash player (often installed by kids wanting to play online games) or Adobe's Acrobat Reader also install Yahoo's toolbar for Internet Explorer -- unless you pay attention to the fine print. Similarly, the Ask Jeeves toolbar tags along with video games and other software aimed at kids. Install a popular peer-to-peer program such as KaZaa and Grokster and you might get literally dozens of unwanted advertising programs.

    There are the beginnings of a backlash against spyware and adware. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is taking L.A.-based Intermix Media to court, accusing the company of violating state laws against false advertising and deceptive business practices as well as common-law trespass.

    His office promises that lawsuits against other companies are the works and notes that one company, Acez Software, has already settled out of court. announced that it now scans all potential downloads with several anti-spyware tools, and refuses to post anything that fails the scan.

    They report that several popular programs that failed the scans are now providing new adware-free versions.

    My recommendations: take spyware seriously. Read the fine print when installing any software, and don't install software you don't really need. (Should you be downloading music at work?)

    Set up your home computers so your kids are "limited users" who can't install software without permission. Avoid online anti-spyware scams.

    Good anti-spyware software: Webroot Spy Sweeper, Lavasoft Ad-Aware, Spybot - Search and Destroy.

    If you're running Windows 2000 or XP, Microsoft Antispyware is very good. Linux and Macs are still spyware-free.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan