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15 August 2005  
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Home - Technology - Article

Keane insight

The trouble with spyware (and how to get rid of it)

Vendor Accent

Users need to protect themselves, and that means having an adequate (and up-to-date) anti-virus, anti-spam, and firewall installed, says Vinod Kumar.

Basically, spyware is a piece of non-replicating software that installs itself on a computer. Viruses and worms, by definition, do replicate, and this is why spyware is not considered viral. Spyware is mostly used to track and collate information about the user’s computer behaviour. The collected information is often sent to a third-party. What makes spyware dodgy is that info is tracked without the computer user’s consent or knowledge. The information collated and recorded might be about what pages a computer user visited; it could be about other behavioural patterns as well. Why do they want this info? One reason is that it will assist the third party in honing their sales pitch to potential consumers.

Adware is a subset of what we call ‘unwanted applications.’ Other such applications include diallers, joke programmes and some legitimate freeware utilities (if installed by a malware dropper). Viruses and trojans also occasionally drop a piece of spyware that will inform them when the infected file is being used.

Phone diallers are not spyware. They are programmes that dial a premium rate phone number, usually to connect to a pornographic website, and then charge you an absolute fortune for the privilege. You will find out about this only when you get a massive phone bill. (However, some diallers may contain or drop adware/spyware.)

Unfortunately, we do not have figures on the costs of these. Most people who might have spyware on their systems probably don’t even know it is there. Since spyware is used to track information about the user, spammers might be interested in some of their findings as it may help them find more open relay machines which they can use to send out huge amounts of (junk) mail.

We are seeing a developing relationship between virus writers and spammers. Our honeypots show us that about 40 percent of all spam comes from what we call a zombie machine, or a computer whose security has been compromised and can be controlled remotely by a third party. Without the user’s knowledge, a spammer can access the computer via a backdoor left open by virus or other security vulnerabilities, and then use it to send out spam. Particularly attractive are computers that are constantly connected to the web—via broadband, for instance. We also suspect that virus writers sell to spammers the lists of machines they know they have compromised.

There are spyware-specific programmes that protect computer users from spyware. Computers are powerful machines, and there is a lot of money to be made in the cyberworld. In the same way that you might be careful about giving away your personal information in contests or when sending in scratch cards, or how you might think twice about letting strangers into your house, it is wise to have a similar attitude when surfing the Web. Users need to protect themselves, and that means having an adequate (and up-to-date) anti-virus, anti-spam, and firewall installed. Spam and viruses can send you links or download a spyware programme from a dodgy site. Firewalls can help block some of the communication between miscreants outside and your PC.

Being safe also means that you need to be smart about computer usage. If someone is offering you something for free, ask yourself: What is in it for him? Do you know the company? Are they clear about what they want? Are you comfortable sharing info with them? It is also wise to turn off everything that you don’t need or use. For instance, do you really need to have everything enabled in your browser? Why not stop cookies from nesting in your machine without letting you know? Check you Internet browser settings and set them to the highest safety levels you can without compromising usage. There are a few free and purchasable spyware packages around. They can help keep you informed about what unknown entities are trying to install on your computer. Although I haven’t tried either of these personally, I do know that Lavasoft Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy are both free for personal usage. You might also look at www.spywareinfo.com for more information.

The author is Managing Director, Satcom Infotech.

E-mail: vinod@satcominfotech.com


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