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32. Spy-ware can hitch ride on downloads

By Mark Alberstat

Dear Mousepad:

My computer isn't working nearly as fast as it once did. It seems slow to open e-mail and visit Internet sites. There are also a lot more pop-up ads then ever before. Is there something I can do?

-B. Lloyd, Fall River

Lurking inside many Windows-based PCs are dozens of files and programs that are insidiously slowing down your computer and reporting your movements back to Big Brother.

Although this sounds like a dire situation, it isn't as bad as it seems. It is, however, far more common than most people would think.

While travelling the Internet today, users are bombarded by pop-up ads offering all kinds of services and software, much of it for free. If you have ever installed these add-ons, your computer probably has some amount of spy-ware or ad-ware installed. These programs often offer users cute backgrounds to their e-mails, browser helpers and even programs that allow you to put smiling, waving or a dozen other types of smiley faces in your e-mail messages.

Spy-ware is tiny programs that are loaded on your computer and run behind scenes. They can monitor keystrokes, change system files and even transmit your Internet activity back to some central server that monitors Internet traffic.

Although a recent court ruling has said that music-sharing programs are perfectly legal in Canada, Kazaa is one of the most popular programs that loads ad-ware. This fact is disclosed to the user, but only in the fine print, which few people ever read.

There are a few programs that can find this software on your PC and get rid of it for you. The two most popular ones are Spybot Search and Destroy and Ad-aware. The basic version of each of these is free for the downloading.

These programs scan your PC's hard drive, memory and Windows Registry and flag any questionable software it comes across. The user may then get the software to delete it from their machine, or if they want, leave it there untouched.

Both of these programs can also track down a nastier segment of this software sector, that being mal-ware. These programs, which are often distributed via e-mail, include automatic diallers (which can add long-distance calls to your phone line) and even add pornography links to your bookmarks.

If you do want cute kittens (or other images) on the top bar of your browser, or smiley faces in your e-mail, it is best to look into the software being offered. Most of these programs have homepages that do, buried deep inside, have the end-user licence agreement that spells out what other programs may come along with their free offer.

The same precautions should be taken with the spy-ware-scanning software. Like all software, it has defaults and assumed paths that are appropriate for most users, but not all. A bit of time reading through the help file may save users time in reinstalling a program or two they really do want to use, like Kazaa, despite its ad-ware siblings that come along with them.

Although Microsoft has produced operating systems with several gaping holes in them for security breaches like these software programs, its Protect Your PC site is worth a surf.

The following is a list of sites for spy-ware removal software and general information on this ongoing problem:

AdAware: www.lavasoft.de

SpyBot: www.safer-networking.org

Info about spy-ware: www.spywareinfo.com

Microsoft's Protect Your PC: www.microsoft.com/protect/

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, email mousepad@chebucto.ns.ca. If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.

 

The Mousepad Index

 

Originally published 18 April 2004


 


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