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    The ins and outs of spyware and adware

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver  August 3-9, 2004; issue 771 High tech office column

    Is your computer increasingly sluggish? Does your Web browser's home page show a site other than the one you picked, even after you reset it to your choice? Do ads pop up unexpectedly on your computer screen?

    No, your computer probably isn't infected with a virus. But it probably is loaded with so-called spyware or adware, installed in theory with your permission, but in reality without your informed consent when you (or a family member) downloaded and installed presumably free software or clicked on a Web ad.

    A spring 2004 study by Internet service provider Earthlink looked at a million PCs, and found a total of 29 million installed spyware programs: an average of over 28 per computer. While these were home systems, spyware is becoming increasingly common on work computers as well.

    Spyware runs in the background, reporting back about where you go online. Adware serves up ads, often tailored to your browsing preferences. Not all software with ads is evil: Eudora e-mail and Opera Web browser software both offer users the choice between a free, ad-supported version and a paid ad-free version. Neither spy on your browsing habits or run programs secretly in the background. And lots of other software is simply free, with no catches.

    Spyware and adware, however, can be nasty stuff. It's typically installed without full disclosure, and runs all the time in the background. Often it remains in effect even after uninstalling the original program. At best, it's sapping your computer's performance. By constantly "calling home" it can be clogging your network. And even worse, it can be reporting information that you would rather keep private, as well as changing your computer and browser settings, and causing system instability and crashes.

    Downloading music is currently legal in Canada (while the music industry appeals a recent court decision). If someone is using your computer to download music, odds are high they've installed Kazaa. Kazaa runs ads, but also installs a service called Altnet from Brilliant Digital Entertainment, which is designed to (according to an April 2002 annual report filed with the U.S. SEC) "enable our clients to access and utilize this excess processing power, storage capacity and unused bandwidth for multiple applications." In other words, sell your computer's processing power. (On its website, Kazaa states that it is not spyware, which it defines as: "software that is installed deceptively to gather information about you without your knowledge.")

    A firewall and up-to-date antivirus software are useful in themselves, but won't keep spyware off your system. A software firewall such as Zone Alarm (but not the firewall built into Windows XP) will notify you if a new program is trying to "dial home." Pay attention to these alerts - it's too easy to get in the bad habit of clicking to allow everything without careful reading.

    Anti-spyware software is not as sophisticated as current antivirus utilities. Several (legitimately free) programs can be downloaded to check for and remove spyware. I recommend Spybot Search and Destroy, AdAware, and Spy Sweeper. Try several; each is reasonably straightforward to use, and each seems to catch some stuff that the others miss.

    Note that removing installed spyware can cripple the "free" software that installed it. Spybot optionally runs in the background, watching for anything that tries to make changes to the Windows system registry and asking whether it has your permission. Once again, try to get in the habit of thinking before agreeing.

    Get in the habit of updating these programs and scanning for spyware regularly.

    Once again, Mac and Linux users get to chuckle up their sleeves. As with viruses, while it's theoretically possible to create spyware for these systems, currently no one is bothering with these minority markets.

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