can be costly
Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business
14-20, 2005; issue 816
High Tech Office
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
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
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
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
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
His office promises that lawsuits against other companies are the works
and notes that one company, Acez Software, has already settled out of
Download.com announced that it now scans all potential downloads with
several anti-spyware tools, and refuses to post anything that fails the
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.