What Is Spyware?

Spyware has been the talk of the Internet recently, and it's not going away any time soon. In order to fight something, however, you need to know what your enemy is, who your enemy is, how they attack, and what you can do to defeat them. So again, what is spyware?
Published: Jul 21, 2005
Author: Michael E, Callahan
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Spyware has been the talk of the Internet recently, and it's not going away any time soon. In order to fight something, however, you need to know what your enemy is, who your enemy is, how they attack, and what you can do to defeat them. So again, what is spyware?

Spyware is really just a generalized term that's used to define any program that gathers personal information from your computer, alters your computers configuration, pops up advertising, and the like. The kicker is that you, the user, don't agree to having this software on your computer. Or, if you did agree to it, you didn't realize it. And that's part of the problem. The people who distribute spyware often depend on our bad habits to launch their attack. Let me explain.

Nearly every software program you will ever install has an "End User License Agreement" or EULA. These can be very long and boring and when asked if they agree with the terms, most people just automatically signify that they do. Now think about it. Would you buy a car without reading the terms of the loan? Buy a house without going over all the papers? Enter into an agreement with someone and sign your name without reading the agreement first? Nearly all of you are saying, "Of course not!" Ahh, but that's exactly what you're doing when you just agree to an EULA without looking at it. Without reading it completely. Some spyware is installed on your computer with your permission. How? The part about the spyware is at the end of the EULA. Those engaged in distributing spyware count on the fact that you, and I, won't read what we're agreeing to.

  • Rule Number 1

ALWAYS read what you are agreeing to. Always read EULA's and privacy statements completely!

Another way that spyware gets on computers is through programs that allow you to share files, like music files. Again, the spyware creators are counting on the fact that you aren't going to be careful. That you'll want the files in question bad enough not to pay attention. And that's when they get you.

  • Rule Number 2
NEVER get files of any kind from any source that you don't know and/or trust.

Spyware has many forms and iterations. Some is relatively benign and pops up ads of your computer, but other spyware is more invasive. It will change your Internet "home" page or add a new toolbar to your browser. Other forms will track your movements across the World Wide Web and convey that information back to the people who created the spyware. Still other forms of spyware can log your keystrokes and find out things like usernames and passwords.

I know that many of you shaking your heads in disbelief. Surely such things aren't possible. Oh, but they are possible and going on every, single day. And what makes it all the worse is that in many instances you agreed to it. It's like agreeing to let some stranger roam around your house for a week. Remember, the people who deal in spyware prey on our basic, human weaknesses. Take the changing of your home page. This often happens when you install a program and as the installation ends, you're asked a question. The trick is that under the question is a line about changing your home page. They count on you not reading the box, but just clicking "Yes". And the question is phrased so by clicking what you think is right also accomplishes their goal.

  • Rule Number 3

THINK and READ before you click. Here at Tucows we've been watching out for spyware since it first hit the scene, making sure that programs don't install spyware when they install the software you actually want. But, if you get software from sites that aren't reputable, or from strangers, you're opening yourself up to invasion. So, assuming you don't have a good anti-spyware program installed, how can you tell if you have spyware on your computer? Here are a few basic indications:

  • Your computer seems to crash more often
  • You find a new toolbar in your Web browser
  • Your computer seems slower, sluggish
  • Your "home" page changes suddenly and you didn't change it
  • You get pop-up ads both on and offline

You've all heard the adage "The best offense is a good defense" and that's most often true. You can find a wide range of programs here on Tucows that can detect and eliminate spyware, and "adware" which I'll talk about in another article. Many of these will constantly monitor your system so spyware doesn't sneak back after you've removed it.

And for those of you who are feeling bad about yourself, feeling stupid because you allowed "spyware" on your computer, let me tell you this. I learned most of these things the hard way. And I'm hoping that you won't have to. So, remember the rules, get a good anti-spyware program, and enjoy your time on the Internet!

Here are some programs you can try to eliminate spyware:

Read About Adware

About Michael E, Callahan

Michael E. Callahan, known around the world by the trademarked name Dr. File Finder, is regarded as the world's leading expert on shareware. Dr. File Finder works with software programs and developers full-time, and in the average year he evaluates 10,000 programs. Since 1982 he has evaluated over 250,000 software and hardware products. Mr. Callahan began evaluating software online in 1982 and no one has been at it longer. He currently works doing online PR and marketing for software companies, and is the Senior Content Producer for Butterscotch.Com.

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