Spyware: Things you ought to know...

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You lock you car before leaving it on the street in some places, don't you?

You need to be careful about aspects of using your computer, too. You wouldn't tell a stranger the password to one of your online accounts, I hope? Spyware is a way for others to get such information without your knowing help. So how do you avoid un-knowingly telling?

It is possible for a programmer to give you two programs in one. The first might be a simple free game which you might be inclined to pass on to friends. Buried within it can be a second program which could do lots of things, but one of the most worrying is that it could "watch" what keys you type, and send reports back to the programmer from time to time, typically when you are on the internet. Another, less dangerous, but perhaps more annoying, payload which spyware can deliver is "junk mail" which will clutter your screen.

How do you get infected? By installing programs, which you may do intentionally, or by opening email attachments, or by visiting the wrong websites without proper firewall protection. Of course, if you are not the only person who can access the computer you are using, there is always the chance that someone else got it infected with spyware.... or that they deliberately installed a keystroke logging program. In the latter case, as long as they can re-visit the machine later, it doesn't need an internet connection to compromise your passwords.

How can you protect yourself from spyware? There are programs similar to anti-virus utilities which will help you. More on them in a moment. You still also need anti-virus and firewall protection. And if they don't give you enough headaches with doing updates, consider very seriously using the Windows update service as well. I'm less enthusiastic about the latter: It is a case of damned if you do; damned if you don't with that one.

First you need to know that "spyware-like" activity can be part of legitimate programs. Opera and Eudora can be used without paying any cash... if you agree to allowing some very modest space on your screen to be used for advertising. If you want to get rid of the ads, you just have to pay for the software. An anti-spyware program will probably notice the activity. You will then say "That's okay, I know about that one, and want to permit it."

The two protective programs I have heard mentioned most often as being well written and effective are Lavasoft's Ad-Aware and Spybot Seek and Destroy. Both are free downloads. There is more about what spyware is at their sites. I first learned about much of this from a discussion of spyware at Weather Graphics' interesting site. (They no longer appear to have anything about spyware, but I'm leaving this link "for old time's sake"!) I would also like to thank the British magazine Computer Shopper for the good material in their Feb 2005 issue.

Protect yourself: One simple thing you can do is to visit www.grc.com from time to time and run their free security check, "Shields Up". The results are not the simplest thing to read, but the issue of whether your system is vulnerable isn't simple either. (Is that grammar right? "results"... plural... "not the simplest thing"... singular... "to read". Seems right, but "shouldn't" be?? I prefer programming languages to natural languages!!)

Another thing you can do is install WinPatrol. It will help you with existing infestations, and it will help guard against becoming infected.

If you become infected... good luck to you. For stubborn things, you may need to employ "Hijack This". DO NOT just waltz into the Hijack This community and post logs without some careful preparation. Hijack This is a program which examines your computer and prepares a report, the "log" I just mentioned. *IF* you have done everything else that you should, FIRST, you send that log to experts. They then advise you. Start your study of "Do I need Hijack This" at the excellent SpywareInfo site, rated by PC Magazine as "One of the 100 sites you cannot live without". How do you get Hijack This? The answer is at the SpywareInfo site.
Don't be scammed! If you get a message on your machine (not from one of the packages mentioned above) saying that you're infected, ignore any "Just click here, and we'll help you remove it" type stuff. There are people out there who infect you, and then charge you for removing what they've done.

In addition to the things that Ad-Aware and Spybot can protect you from, you need to be aware of another way for people to find out what you've been typing.

There is now a very neat little piece of hardware which the "bad guy" inserts between the keyboard and the computer. It is as fat as a PS/2 plug, and about 3cm long. Typically, it would be attached to the end of the keyboard's cable, and plugged into the connector on the outside of the "box"... but it could be installed inside the box. Once that is in place, it monitors what people type. The "bad guy" comes along at his/ her leisure, opens up something like Notepad, types "MySecretPassword", and into the Notepad document spills 128k or more of recent keyboard activity. At the time I write this, that is 35 times the text in this document. There are also ways to do essentially the same thing using programs within the computer. They give the bad guy more things to overcome to install them... but in many cases, it wouldn't be difficult.

Do you use computers at the library, in a hotel lobby, at an internet cafe? As Phil always said: "Let's be careful out there....."

Progress? Not! I first started warning people about spyware on one of my pages in December 2001. It seemed pretty esoteric then. I'm sorry that malware in general has become a mainstream serious problem. Once upon a time, the malware writers were like kids throwing bricks through windows. In some ways, we didn't know how lucky we were. In those days, if you got hit by malware, you knew it, and the writers were disaffected mis-fits on the fringes.

Today the problem is much more serious for two reasons:

As we were waxing all nostalgic a moment ago, let me share another story: Around 1984 I was working in a school. A colleague was alarmed by reports of pornography being circulated on floppy discs. (5- 1/4" floppies, of course!) I told him not to worry... graphics were so crude in those days that the viewer needed a good imagination. I guess I'd be more concerned today.

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