Spyware and Adware FAQs
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,
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
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.