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Is your computer spying on you?

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Along with imposing pop-up ads and collecting data about users, spyware can change computer settings without users' consent, change users' Internet home pages, or send them to counterfeit versions of familiar websites, where they are enticed to give out personal information.

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"Keystroke loggers" record and transmit every key hit by the user, which could include such sensitive items as passwords and credit-card numbers. And they may have a "backdoor" capability, that allows an outside party to plant new programs on the computer at any time, Mr. Thompson says in a phone interview.

Perhaps most insidious, some spyware comes attached to programs advertised to remove spyware from a computer. That's why it's important to obtain antispyware programs from a reputable source, experts say. The CDT has sent a letter of complaint to the FTC against one company that it says was using spyware to change computer users' home pages without their consent and then telling users that they should buy an antispyware program to protect themselves.

Spyware is sometimes confused with cookies. Cookies are pieces of data, not an application, used by a website to record information about users' visits. Most browsers on most computers have cookies installed by sites to help them access the sites more easily and quickly, such as remembering login or registration IDs, user preferences, or "shopping cart" information. Cookies can raise privacy issues, but they are not considered spyware.

But even relatively innocent programs that only display ads can be the source of more serious problems. The University of Washington study looked for just four of the most common spyware programs - Gator, Cydoor, SaveNow, and eZula - on 31,303 computers on the university's system. It found that 5.1 percent of the computers had at least one of the four installed on it, despite the fact that the vast majority of the machines were protected by a network firewall intended to keep out viruses and other malicious intruders.

The study also found security flaws in Gator and eZula that meant they could be "hacked" into by a third party to become more malicious and possibly even take control of a computer.

"This potentially means that there are tens of millions of computers with these programs on them that might be vulnerable to ... attacks," says computer scientist Steven Gribble, who helped conduct the study. Gator has since patched its program to prevent such an attack, he says.

"I'm glad the government is getting involved," Gribble says by phone. "I'm optimistic that legislation will help, but I'm pessimistic that it will solve the problem. My suspicion is that it's going to get worse."

How to protect yourself from spyware

Future legislation may help reduce spyware. But computer users can also take action now to protect themselves. Among the suggestions from experts:

• Think before you click. Download software only from sources you trust. Never download programs offered in pop-up ads.

• Understand what you are downloading. Read the End User License Agreement or other explanatory material, which may contain wording that gives your consent to spyware being loaded onto your computer.

• Install and run trustworthy anti-spyware software. Spybot Search and Destroy is one favorite of experts and is free at www.download.com.

The Center for Democracy and Technology also mentions AdAware (also free at www.download.com), Spyware Eliminator, and BPS Spyware/Adware Remover.

Other reliable products such as PestPatrol (www.PestPatrol.com, $40) may cost money (though PestPatrol has a free trial version that will detect, but not remove, spyware). Internet providers such as Earthlink and AOL are also beginning to offer antispyware programs to their users.

• If you encounter spyware that bothers you, report it to the FTC.

SOURCES: CDT, Monitor research

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