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Spyware and Adware FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

 

 

What is “spyware”?
The term “spyware” generally refers to programs that monitor your actions while using your computer. While the intentions may sometimes be malicious (trying to gather passwords or credit card numbers, for example), often the purpose is to gather general data about the types of things you’re doing online. This data is then sold to companies so that they can form their marketing strategies around what Internet users are doing.

What is “adware”?
“Adware” usually describes a program that generates advertisements (often called “pop-ups”) based on your web surfing habits (see “spyware” above). For example, if you do a Google search for the term “Florida vacations”, a spyware program would see this term, then prompt an adware program to create a pop-up ad for a Florida resort.

How does spyware and adware get on my computer?
There are a number of ways that these programs can get on your computer. They’re often bundled with free file-sharing and media players that you download. You can also get them from clicking on links or attachments in instant messaging programs, or by visiting certain websites. Spyware and adware is not included in commercial programs from companies like Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Netscape, and others.

Why do people make spyware and adware?
Remember the saying that “nothing in life is free”? It takes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours to write a file sharing or media player program. Often a programmer doesn’t want to charge for his or her work, but still needs to make some money on the product. Large media companies will offer to pay the programmer if he or she agrees to include spyware or adware in their product. That way, the program is still “free”, but the person makes some money as well.

Why isn’t spyware and adware illegal?
During the installation of a program, you almost always need to indicate your agreement to the license stipulations for that product. This is usually a long document filled with legal terms and disclaimers. If, in that document, you agree that the installation may contain “other” auxiliary programs not specifically noted, you’ve technically given permission for spyware or adware to be installed on your computer. Of course, if these programs try to obtain personal information (like passwords) or perform other illegal activities, then they’re breaking the law.

Does spyware and adware hurt my computer?
Because they’re running all the time (in the background), spyware and adware programs can use up valuable memory and disk space. If several (or even dozens) of these programs are installed and running at once, they can literally overwhelm the system, making it run so slowly that it’s almost unusable. Additionally, some of these programs try to modify your computer’s vital network and Internet settings, so that your web browser goes to different pages than you specify or pops up windows for additional sites. If the settings are modified too radically, your Internet connection may stop working altogether.

How do I know which programs have spyware or adware?
There’s no “master list” of programs that include spyware and adware. There are some sites that list programs that have been defined as spyware or adware themselves (see http://www.spywareguide.com), but there’s no place to go to see if a main program bundles these “other” applications with it.

Can I choose to not install the spyware or adware components?
Usually spyware and adware are installed by default, as part of the normal installation procedure. If there’s a “customized install” option for the program, there’s a chance that you might be able to exclude certain items, but usually this is not the case. Additionally, programs sometimes actually require spyware and adware, so deleting or not installing these items render the main program unusable.

Can I just delete these spyware/adware programs from my computer?
Just like a spy, these programs usually try to be sneaky and hide themselves. They might use names that “disguise” their real purpose or “hide” themselves in the depths of your computer, such that you never know their name or where they’re located. While you might be able to use the “Add/Remove Programs” control panel to delete some, this usually leaves at least part of the program on your computer and running.

So how do I get rid of this stuff?
Fortunately, there are a couple programs (Ad-aware and Spybot) that do a very good job of finding and deleting most spyware and adware. Usually, running these programs will return your system to a usable and much more stable state. However, sometimes the “damage” caused by these programs is significant enough that a more detailed repair (by a qualified technician) is necessary. Keep in mind that spyware and adware is actually required by some programs, so deleting these items may make other programs not work.

Okay, I think that my system is clean. How do I keep myself from getting spyware and adware?
First, keep in mind that spyware and adware usually come from programs downloaded for “free” off the Internet. When installing any program (especially file sharing, instant messengers, and media players), you can read the license agreement to see if they mention “third party applications” or that you may “occasionally be notified of important news”. These are dead giveaways that spyware is included. Of course, this assumes that they’re being honest and forthright in disclosing all of what’s included in the download. Just keep in mind the saying “nothing in life is free”. There’s always a chance that if you’re not paying for it, they’re making their money somewhere else.

Also, be sure that you have virus protection software installed, and that it’s being updated at least once a week. Although it varies by company, there will be a place somewhere in this software that indicates the date of the installed “definitions” or “DAT files”. If the date indicated is more than one week past, the software is outdated. Although not technically a “virus”, spyware and adware is sometimes detected as such, and may be able to be prevented or removed with antivirus software.

Finally, use the tools listed below to regularly scan your system. Like virus protection, you need to be sure that the program is updated regularly using the built-in “update” function of each.

When will this stop?
Unfortunately, just like flyers in your postal mail, spam in your e-mail, and viruses, spyware and adware are probably here to stay. Because they’re relatively new to the scene, tools for detecting and preventing the damage they cause are not yet fully developed. As time passes, better and more powerful tools will emerge to better control their actions.

 

 

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