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There are many PC surveillance tools that allow a user to monitor all kinds of activity on a computer, ranging from keystroke capture, snapshots, email logging, and chat logging just to name a few. These tools are often designed for parents, businesses and similar environments, but can be easily abused if they are installed on your computer without your knowledge. Tools such as these are perfectly legal in most places, but if they are abused, they can seriously violate your privacy. In the more recent years of technology, Spyware has risen as a privacy, security, and functionality issue.
What is Spyware
What exactly is Spyware? Spyware is computer software that is installed on a personal computer to intercept or take partial control over the user’s interaction with the computer, without the user’s informed consent (Wikipedia). Spyware is any technology that aids in gathering information about a person or organization without their knowledge. On the internet (where it is sometimes called spybot or tracking software), Spyware is programming that is put in someone’s computer secretly gathering information about the user and relaying it to advertisers or other interested parties. Spyware can get in a computer as a software virus or as the result of installing a new program.
While the term Spyware suggests software that secretly monitors the user's behavior, the functions of Spyware extend well beyond simple monitoring and it is legal. Spyware programs can collect various types of personal information, such as Internet surfing habit, sites that have been visited, but can also interfere with user control of the computer in other ways, such as installing additional software, redirecting Web Browser activity, accessing websites blindly that will cause more harmful viruses, or diverting advertising revenue to a third party. Spyware can even change computer settings, resulting in slow connection speeds, different home pages, and loss of Internet or other programs.
Recognizing and Avoiding Spyware
Many experienced Web users have learned how to recognize Spyware, avoid it, and delete it. According to officials at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, all computer users should get wise to the signs that Spyware has been installed on their machines, and then take the appropriate steps to delete it (Federal Trade Commission).
The clues that Spyware is on a computer include:
· a barrage of pop-up ads
· a hijacked browser — that is, a browser that takes you to sites other than those you type into the address box
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· new and unexpected toolbars
· new and unexpected icons on the system tray at the bottom of your computer screen
· random error messages
· sluggish or downright slow performance when opening programs or saving files
A Spyware program is rarely alone on a computer. An affected machine can rapidly be infected by many other components. Users frequently notice unwanted behavior and degradation of system performance. A Spyware infestation can create significant unwanted CPU activity, disk usage, and network traffic, all of which slow the computer down. Stability issues, such as application or system-wide crashes, are also common. Spyware, which interferes with networking software causes difficulty connecting to the Internet.
In some infections, the Spyware is not even evident. Users assume in those situations that the issues relate to hardware, Windows installation problems, or a virus. Some owners of badly infected systems resort to contacting technical support experts, or even buying a new computer because the existing system "has become too slow". Badly infected systems may require a clean reinstallation of all their software in order to return to full functionality.
The good news is that consumers can take steps to lower their risk of Spyware infections (Federal Trade Commission). Indeed, experts at the FTC and across the technology industry suggest that you:
· Update your operating system and Web browser software. Your operating system (like Windows or Linux) may offer free software “patches” to close holes in the system that spyware could exploit.
· Download free software only from sites you know and trust. It can be appealing to download free software like games, peer-to-peer file-sharing programs, customized toolbars, or other programs that may change or customize the functioning of your computer. Be aware, however, that some of these free software applications bundle other software, including spyware.
· Don’t install any software without knowing exactly what it is. Take the time to read the end-user license agreement (EULA) before downloading any software. If the EULA is hard to find — or difficult to understand — think twice about installing the software.
· Minimize “drive-by” downloads. Make sure your browser security setting is high enough to detect unauthorized downloads, for example, at least the “Medium” setting for Internet Explorer. Keep your browser updated.
· Don’t click on any links within pop-up windows. If you do, you may install spyware on your computer. Instead, close pop-up windows by clicking on the “X” icon in the title bar.
· Don’t click on links in spam that claim to offer anti-spyware software. Some software offered in spam actually installs spyware.
· Install a personal firewall to stop uninvited users from accessing your computer. A firewall blocks unauthorized access to your computer and will alert you if spyware already on your computer is sending information out.
What’s All the Hype About
According to Sunbelt Systems Software, their SunPoll in 2005, reports that 68% of companies see Spyware as the biggest security threat to their networks ( Telecomworldwire). Systems Administrators, IT managers, consultants, and home users believe that Spyware is reducing the productivity level of users and they have a high distrust factor of adware (or advertising software) when it comes to Spyware. Many business executives feel Spyware is a definite problem for the industry and have invested great money into software to detect and delete Spyware.
While legitimate adware companies will disclose the nature of data that is collected and transmitted in their privacy statement (linked from our database), there is almost no way for the user to actually control what data is being sent. The fact is that the technology is in theory capable of sending much more than just banner statistics and this is why many people feel uncomfortable with the idea.
On the other hand, millions of people are using advertising supported Spyware products and could not care less about the privacy hype. In fact some Spyware programs are among the most popular downloads on the Internet. Spyware is becoming a booming business for some companies and is used as a major source of advertising and marketing. The usual motive for buying Spyware popup traffic is simple: Showing ads. An example of this is a user visiting NetFlix website which has Blockbuster ads. The power of the Spyware is that the user will buy from Blockbuster instead of NetFlix although they are on NetFlix’s website.
In particular, cheap spyware traffic can be used to inflate a site's traffic statistics. Edelman suggests buying widespread "forced visits" causes widely-used traffic measurements to over report a site's popularity: Traffic measurements mistakenly assume users arrived at the site because they actually wanted to go there, without considering the possibility that the visit was involuntary (Edelman, Alpha Articles). Nonetheless, from the site's perspective, forced visits offer real benefits: Investors will be willing to pay more to buy a site that seems to be more popular, and advertisers may be willing to pay more for their ads to appear. In some sectors, higher reported traffic may create a buzz of supposed popularity helping to recruit users in the future.
There are many legal battles and articles that support both sides of the Spyware issue but many companies and home users invest in supporting anti-software. Leading antivirus software makers Symantec and Network Associates Inc. (NAI) have introduced newer and updated products of Norton AntiVirus and McAfee VirusScan that can detect a range of snooping programs that are not technically viruses but pose a threat to Internet users’ privacy. These software also spots spyware and adware, allowing users to detect and remove the suspect software applications. Roberts suggests that installations of the shadowy programs have escalated in recent years, with the growing popularity of peer-to-peer file sharing programs such as Kazaa and Morpheus which is why this antivirus software company decided to focus on Spyware programs becoming a leading concern (Roberts, InfoWorld). Although this does not fix the Spyware problem, it does cut down on the reported incidents.
Spyware has become an issue with users’ privacy. It’s software that is installed on your computer without your consent. Spyware problems range from different homepages to slow internet connection speed. Although many companies view Spyware negatively, it has become a great source for advertisement and marketing. Spyware can be avoided by antivirus software.
“Antivirus companies target spyware, worms”, Roberts, Paul. InfoWorld.
Federal Trade Commission
“Orbitz Among Companies Using Spyware to Boost Pageviews”, Edelman, Ben. Alpha Articles
“Sunbelt's SunPoll has found that companies see spyware as the biggest network threat”, Telecomworldwire.
Questions for Discussion
1. Do you see Spyware as a true threat to companies or home users?
2. Besides Norton AntiVirus and McAfee VirusScan, what are some other popular or great anti-virus software?
3. One of the biggest issues with Spyware is that with some big name companies such as Orbitz, they have been successful with using Spyware. What are some other companies that benefit from using Spyware to advertise their products?
4. Knowing the problems that associate from using Spyware and the fact that is a BIG privacy issue for users, should Spyware in fact be illegal?