Spyware 101

Perhaps you've heard the term spyware thrown around but you don't know that much about it aside from what the name itself suggests. Your computer hasn't started misbehaving inexplicably. You haven't had to sit on the phone with tech support trying to troubleshoot why you can't connect to the Internet and brought your computer into your local repair shop only to find out that the file sharing application that your children installed on your computer to download "free" music also installed several applications that, among other things, trashed your install of Windows, leaving you to reinstall all your applications.

Welcome to the world of spyware--and a brave new world it is. Even if your computer seems fine, you might be infected with spyware. The word "infected" makes spyware sound like a virus, but really, that definition isn't too far off. Spyware is any application that installs on your computer (with or without your knowledge or consent) and monitors your behavior, both online and off. The spyware reports back information such as the sites you visit, what you search for, what banners you click, and just about anything else ethically-challenged advertisers would like to get their greedy little hands on.

A genre of spyware, called adware, is perhaps the most obvious form of this rampant new form of virus. It will launch banner ads while you are surfing the Web, making it appear that a respectable site like Google is spawning advertisement laden windows.

So, what's the good news? The good news is that spyware is free! That's right. At no additional cost to you (except for perhaps the hours spent on the phone with tech support and the $200 repair bill for your computer) you, too, can have your privacy invaded. If that isn't enough, spyware also silently steels a portion of your bandwidth while it sends sensitive information about your online habits to an otherwise anonymous server somewhere out there in vast empty that is the Internet.

Seriously though, the good news is that most spyware is harmless to your computer and, though you can't uninstall spyware like you would a legitimate piece of software, it can be removed. A word of caution though, sometimes removing spyware requires going into places on your computer that should be left to professionals. If you've found instructions on how to remove a piece of spyware and they contain the phrase, "now type regedit" or "find the directory C:\windows\system32\," you should really contact your local computer repair shop.

So, how do you tell if your computer is infected with a virus? Unfortunately, though spyware has all the traits of a virus, most virus detectors do not consider spyware a virus. There are spyware detection and removal utilities, but I hesitate linking to them as removing the spyware from one's computer may adversely affect some software. That's right, some of that "free" software that you see all over the Internet will actually installed spyware on your computer without your knowledge. If you try and remove the spyware, it could break the software. So, to forestall further technical support calls, I'll just suggest that, if you have reason to believe your computer is infected with spyware, then contact your local computer repair shop (getting the hint yet?).

As is always the case, a ounce of prevention is worth a pound of...well, you get the point. To keep your computer and Internet experience free from the adverse effects of spyware, be very, very judicious about what software you install on your computer. "Free" software is usually a good place to start. That software is often paid for by ad revenue. Sometimes, the ads are obvious, such as those in instant messaging clients by companies like MSN, AOL and ICQ. However, sometimes the application installs with a more insidious payload. When in doubt, there is a site that may help you. The site is SpyChecker and all you have to do is type the name of an software into the search field and click the "Check" button. The results page will tell you if the application is known to contain spyware. If the software you searched for is not in their database, it still isn't a 100% sure thing that it doesn't contain spyware, but it's a good place to start.

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