What is Spyware?

I’m paranoid when it comes to the Internet: email, surfing, downloads, shareware, everything. And I’m not exactly a newbie when it comes to anything computer related. Last night I scanned my system with LavaSoft’s Ad-Aware and discovered ClickSpring’s MediaTicketsInstaller lurking on my computer, proof that even I can get viruses and spyware on my home systems. And that’s despite the insanely high paranoia, the firewalls, the antivirus software, the spyware detectors, the popup blocker.

So what is spyware and what does it do? Spyware is software that has been installed on your computer, usually without your knowledge. Just like regular software applications, their purposes are varied. The most common spyware applications spy on your Internet surfing habits and then deliver popup advertisements that they determine may appeal to you. That’s only slightly different from adware software that simply pop up the same specific advertisements every time, or redirect you to the same websites. Other forms of spyware actually record the keys you press, including user names and passwords, and transmit the keystroke logs to some remote computer!

Another common form of spyware uses browser “hijacking”. The software changes your start page, search pages, and other browser settings in order to force you to their website so that they will get more visits. Advertising revenue is based on the number of visits to their website. By forcing you to visit, they get more revenue. Sometimes these changes are reversible simply by going into the Internet Options menu and changing them back. But not always. More often than not, there is a combination of Windows registry settings and files hidden on your hard drive that redo your settings every time you reboot the computer. No matter how often you change your settings back, they are restored the next time you restart your computer.

I don’t worry too much about spyware or adware, because if my machine becomes infected with one of these applications, I have enough experience and knowledge to remove it without damaging anything else on my computer. It’s very much like surgery; if you make a mistake in the Windows registry during the removal of the spyware or you delete the wrong files, you can kill your patient, your Windows operating system, preventing you from booting up your computer at all!

So, take some simple precautions:

  • Install and use spyware detection and removal software such as LavaSoft’s Ad-Aware. There are many other similar applications, but so far in my experience none have detected and removed all of the spyware as easily or as thoroughly as Ad-Aware. Always make sure that you regularly download and update the spyware reference files to protect yourself against new spyware applications.
  • Once you identify malicious websites that spread spyware, add them to your Restricted Sites under the Security tab in Internet Options, preventing them from reactivating if you visit them again in the future.
  • Reset the security setting for the entire Internet (also found under the Security tab in Internet Options) to High. This may prevent some websites you know and trust from functioning properly. But you can either add them to your Trusted Sites, or very temporarily reset the security setting to Medium while visiting them.

Good luck!

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