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Internet Safety

SpyWare and AdWare Nightmares

Be careful of the Spyware, Adware and other Trash Applications that are lurking on the Internet that get discreetly installed on your computer. These programs literally watch what you do on the Internet and report back to the person or group that made them. They, in turn, sell this information to advertising companies or other interested parties so that you will get ads, popup ads or Spam that is targeted to you. For instance, if you go to a clothing site you will be targeted with clothing ads or if you go to a site to book a vacation you will be bombarded with vacation advertisements. The marketing concept itself isn't a bad one, it's the way that the programs get on your computer is what should give everybody nightmares.

When spyware is used, it sends information to the software publisher. The type of information that is sent varies per spyware program. Let's take a closer look at a spyware Internet browser to see how the spyware program operates.

John just installed a new Internet browser to experience the "enhanced browsing and downloading experience" as the spyware publisher advertised. The registration process includes answering some questions about personal details and demographics such as name, email address, age, gender, nationality, profession, and level of education. After finishing the registration process, John decides to start browsing and downloading some software. The software downloads slightly faster than with his old browser, making him a happy user of the spyware product. During every browsing session, John is shown several advertisements. Some are interesting to him and others are not. Over time, John follows several advertisement hyperlinks. Each time, the browser notifies the spyware publisher. The spyware publisher constructs a profile based on the gathered information so that John is only presented with advertisements that are likely to be in his field of interest.

This example shows that users of spyware may not be aware of the information exchange that occurs in the background between the spyware program and the spyware publisher.

Many users are unaware that they are using spyware because of the poor notification on the information-gathering functionality of the software. This subjects users to customer profiling without their knowledge. For this reason, it is important for users to read and understand the End User License Agreement (EULA) and other notification methods before installing software. It is also of equal importance that software publishers provide users with clear and unambiguous notifications of the actions that their software performs.

These programs can be installed on your computer through a virus or they can be installed in the background when you install a freeware or shareware program. Some Spyware does let you know that it is going to be installed if you read through a 20 page EULA and find the one sentence that says what it's going to do. Probably about 90% of the people that install software skip through reading the EULA, who has the time for it? It wouldn't really matter if we did read the EULA because most of the Spyware is installed without our knowledge anyway. That is where the problem resides. No program should be able to get installed on a computer without the owners' permission. Any software that gets installed without permission and transmits data, personal or otherwise, across the Internet is guilty of information theft. Where are the laws for our protection? There aren't any, at least none that work.

Think of the implications. Porn sites, warez sites and other disreputable sites install spyware on visitors' computers on a regular basis. Even worse are chat rooms, file sharing software (e.g., Kazaa), and commercial sites using adware. Credit card numbers, bank accounts, passwords, addresses, phone numbers, virtually all your personal data is sitting on your computer, just waiting for the scumware harvest. Hackers secretly install email forwarding programs that can hijack your computer and cause it to send out spam and your private data to whomever they please.

None of us should stand for a program that can track your surfing habits, abuse your Internet connection by sending this data to a third party, slow down your computer by using bandwidth and running in the background, profile your shopping preferences, hijack your browser start page or pages, alter important system files, and can do this without your knowledge or permission. The security and privacy implications of these exploits should be quite obvious and undesirable on any system or network! Here we are browsing the Internet in the privacy of our own home or office and everything that we are doing could be broadcast over the Internet to anybody that has an interest in, or that is willing to pay for the information. It is just not right!

There are many threats to privacy in this age of increasing connectivity. You can prevent compromise by criminals and by privacy-invading pest infestations by following these simple rules:

1. Read the fine print before installing any software, and especially adware that is supported by channeling ads to your computer;
2. Install and configure a personal firewall on your computer to identify and block unauthorized outbound connections as well as unauthorized inbound connections;
3. Always run an antivirus program that updates itself automatically to counter new threats;
4. Scan your system regularly with a tool like the Norton Security which identifies and removes not only spyware and adware, but also many thousands of other pests that can hurt your computer and your privacy.

The software makers justify using these tactics by saying that it helps keep the software free or at least affordable. I say that If the software is good enough in the first place, people will pay for it. The software makers don't need to be sneaky and embed it with Adware and Spyware. We are only human. We get curious or bored and try some freeware, shareware, media players, interactive content, and maybe some file sharing. Most of those programs have embedded Spyware or Adware in them, and now so does your computer. The worst part is that it is embedded so deep in your computer that it is sometimes almost impossible to remove without a third party application. Sometimes just uninstalling the programs will disable the Spyware, other times it will remain resident on your computer. Can you sleep at night knowing that somebody could be watching your every move while you are online? I'd be having nightmares.

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