Spyware--and how to get rid of it--is rapidly becoming the "spam du jour" issue of IT departments and home PC users alike. Spyware steals computer cycles, slows Internet response, and sometimes drags a PC down to its knees as it attempts to gather information for its sponsoring hosts.
Like email spam, spyware is not something that corporate America or home PC users ever asked for. Also, in much the way email spam was initially treated by IT, spyware is currently viewed by many IT administrators as a simple nuisance. However, unlike spam, spyware isn't sending you anything. At least not yet! Instead of inundating you with offers to enlarge the private parts of your anatomy, it's examining the private activities that you or your users are performing on the network. And like email spam, spyware is about to become one of IT's biggest nightmares.
Sometimes called "adware," Internet spyware is usually a program that is put in someone's computer to secretly gather information about that user and relay it to other interested parties. Spyware can get in a computer as a software virus or as the result of installing a new program or downloading data from a Web page.
Other Kinds of Spyware
The infamous Internet cookie is sometimes considered to be spyware. This is a well-known mechanism for storing information about an Internet user on the PC. Often, cookies are retrieved by Web sites to report information when the user returns to a Web page.
However, the implementation of cookies is generally not concealed from users, who can also disallow access to cookie information. Nevertheless, to the extent that a Web site stores information about you in a cookie that you don't know about, the cookie mechanism could be considered a form of spyware.
For instance, our Web site will store the log-in information of a user so that a person may bypass the sign-on page when posting to our forums. However, no other information contained within the cookie is ever transmitted to our site, and the user may change the browser setting so that no cookie is ever written to the hard disk.
So the rule for determining whether something is truly spyware is--like spam--open to interpretation. Some data collection programs are not, properly speaking, spyware if the user fully understands what data is being collected and with whom it is being shared. However, if the data collection program is installed without the user's consent--as a "drive-by" download or as the result of clicking some option in a deceptive pop-up window--the spyware demarcation line has been crossed.
Getting Rid of Spyware
Ridding yourself of spyware--as implemented in Internet browser-related programs--is not an easy task. The reason is that the programs that collect the information through the browser are most often registered in the Windows Registry in several places. Fiddling with the Windows Registry is not a trivial matter that you want to entrust to your users, however.
There are a few steps that you as an individual can perform to eliminate some spyware. First, if you're running Microsoft Internet Explorer, you can disable Browser Helper Applications (ToolsInternet OptionsAdvanced [Tab]Enable Third-Party Browser Extensions [de-select]). This will prevent toolbar applications written by others from using the browser and collecting data. Empty the page cache too, and delete all Internet cookies.
The above steps will help a bit. However, other kinds of spyware are quite persistent, and to rid yourself of these, you'll need some tools.
One very useful tool is called Ad-aware 6.0 written by Nicolas Stark at Lavasoft Sweden. (Not to be confused with Lavasoft.) This program is free to non-commercial users, and it scans the Windows Registry for both spyware cookies and registry entries that collect data. There is also a professional version of the software. You can select those items that are not readily recognizable and remove them from the PC. Ad-aware also allows the user to download new definitions as more spyware exploits are defined.
Another potent tool is Spybot-Search & Destroy, written by Patrick M. Kolla. It is also a free program, though the author would appreciate donations. It too does a thorough registry scan and eliminates the items causing problems. It also has an "immunize" function that helps prevent new spyware from attaching to your users' systems.
A third free product, from JavaCool Software, is SpywareBlaster 3.1, which is actually recommended by the author of Spybot-Search & Destroy to eliminate the addition of new spyware to your system.
In addition, if you're finding that your users are experiencing unknown problems with their browser software--such as Web pages being redirected to unusual places--a knowledgeable person can use a freeware program called HackThis, available at SpywareInfo. HackThis is a kind of Swiss army knife approach to ad-ware, allowing you to examine the registry keys and eliminate the ones that are known problems. However, HackThis is not for your average user, and it can definitely mess up a user's system if the person killing registry entries is inexperienced. Nonetheless, HackThis is a great tool for diagnosing issues that other programs don't address. In addition, the SpywareInfo site is a great repository of information about current spyware programs that are circulating the Internet.
Who Do You Trust with Your Corporate Info?
For instance, Yahoo! recently began promoting its browser toolbar add-in as a foil against spyware, and Google's toolbar add-in says that it blocks window pop-ups. But, in both cases, the toolbars allow adware agents to be deposited onto the user's PC. So, though they are accurate in their claims that they are preventing "spyware" by their definition, they are in fact promoting and promulgating the less-offensive adware.
This leads us back to an attempt to define what spyware is. Remember that any program that is added to a user's system to collect information unbeknownst to the user is, by definition, spyware. Why is this so important?
After 9/11, the U.S. Congress reconsidered a plan to implement an anti-terrorist initiative called Total Information Awareness (TIA). This plan, among other things, promoted the use of spyware-type programs to gather information about potential terrorists from the Internet. While the plan was ultimately dismissed by Congress, sources within the government have revealed that various elements of TIA--including the use of some spyware--have been implemented by individual agencies, including the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. Precisely what kinds of information the spyware programs are collecting is, of course, not known.
Potentially, other kinds of spyware could be--or are being--devised that can delve into company records, obtain customer account information, or transmit user identities and passwords to business competition.
Coming to Terms with Spyware
Following the pattern of the contagious growth of email spam, spyware today seems like a minor nuisance to our users. But in the months and years to come, controlling this insidious kind of malware is destined to become one more problem for IT to handle.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.