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What is spyware?

To explain what spyware is, we'll first explain what adware is. Adware is 'freeware', whereby ads are embedded in the program. These ads will show up when you open the program. Most adware authors provide the free version with ads and a registered version whereby the ads are disabled. As such, you the user have the choice, you either use the freeware with ads served or you purchase the registered version.

Spyware, however, is published as 'freeware' or as 'adware', but the fact that an analysis and tracking program (which reports your activities to the advertising providers' web site for storage and analysis, the 'spyware' agent) is also installed on your system when you install this so-called 'freeware', is usually not mentioned. Even though the name may indicate so, spyware is not an illegal type of software in any way (see our analogy). But what the adware and spyware providers do with the collected information and what they're going to 'feed' you with, is beyond your control. And in some cases it all happens without your consent!

Hardware spyware

Nowadays spyware can even be found accompanying hardware you buy and install in your system. Yes, the software you install with hardware purchased from certain manufacturers (some even well-known) may include spyware agents.

Spyware categories

Adware networks
The backbone for big time spyware are ad serving networks that pay publishers of games, utilities and music/video players per download, to include their ad serving programs. Ad serving networks are DoubleClick, Web3000, Radiate, SaveNow, GAIN.

Stalking horses
A number of programs that enable the adware networks to function on desktops are bundled in many popular programs and often (not always!) presented in installation disclosure screens as desirable add-ons to their Trojan horse hosts. All collect information. Included in TopText, Cydoor, OnFlow, Medialoads, Delfin, WebHancer, New.net.

Trojan horses
These popular Internet downloads usually come with the ad serving network basic software and at least one stalking horse. Included in KaZaa, Grokster, Morpheus, Limewire, AudioGalaxy, iMesh, DivX.

Backdoor Santas
Stand-alone programs that incorporate similar approaches have no links to ad serving networks and collect information from users. Included in Alexa, Hotbar, Comet Cursor, eWallet, CuteFTP, BonziBuddy.

Cookies
Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer will still send out existing cookies even after disabling cookies in the browser settings. You must manually delete any/all cookie files on your system to eliminate being tracked by third-party ad networks or spyware or adware providers.

Spyware threats

Spyware threats come in different flavors. The spyware agent can be malware (modifies system settings, and can perform undesirable tasks on your system), hijacker (redirects your browser to web sites), dialer (dials a service, most likely porn sites, for which you are billed!), trojan horse (is attached to a program, and performs undesirable tasks on your system), collectware (collects information about you and your surfing habits).

In addition to doing a detailed check of your browser history, spyware can install DLLs and other executables files, send continuous data to the parent, leave a backdoor open for hackers to intercept your personal data or enter your computer, can install other programs directly on to your computer without your knowledge, can send/receive cookies to other spyware programs and invite them into your computer (even if you have cookies disabled), and they can add Trojan horses to your system. Most spyware and adware programs are independent executable files which take on the authorization abilities of the victim. They include auto install and auto update capabilities and can report on any attempts to remove or modify them.

Spyware programs can reset your auto signature, disable or bypass your uninstall features, monitor your keystrokes, scan files on your drive, access your applications, change homepages in addition to displaying advertising content online or offline. They can read, write and delete files and even reformat your hard drive and they do this while sending a steady stream of information back to the advertising and marketing companies. The majority of these programs once installed can not easily be deleted from your system by normal methods and often leave components behind to continue to monitor your behavior and reinstall themselves. WOW!

In addition to being included with software products many spyware programs can get installed on your computer while you surf the Internet!

Spyware is...

Any software that covertly gathers user information through the user's Internet connection without his or her knowledge, usually for advertising purposes. Spyware applications are typically bundled as a hidden component of freeware or shareware programs that can be downloaded from the Internet; however, it should be noted that the majority of shareware and freeware applications do not come with spyware. Once installed, the spyware monitors user activity on the Internet and transmits that information in the background to someone else. Spyware can also gather information about e-mail addresses and even passwords and credit card numbers.
Spyware is similar to a Trojan horse in that users unwittingly install the product when they install something else. A common way to become a victim of spyware is to download certain peer-to-peer file swapping products that are available today.

Aside from the questions of ethics and privacy, spyware steals from the user by using the computer's memory resources and also by eating bandwidth as it sends information back to the spyware's home base via the user's Internet connection. Because spyware is using memory and system resources, the applications running in the background can lead to system crashes or general system instability.

Because spyware exists as independent executable programs, they have the ability to monitor keystrokes, scan files on the hard drive, snoop other applications, such as chat programs or word processors, install other spyware programs, read cookies, change the default home page on the Web browser, consistently relaying this information back to the spyware author who will either use it for advertising/marketing purposes or sell the information to another party.

Licensing agreements that accompany software downloads sometimes warn the user that a spyware program will be installed along with the requested software, but the licensing agreements may not always be read completely because the notice of a spyware installation is often couched in obtuse, hard-to-read legal disclaimers.

 

 

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