In previous security articles we have tackled the problems you may encounter during your day-to-day activities on the Internet. One of these problems, which we lightly touched on and is increasingly prevalent in the news, is spyware.
What is spyware? It's a general term used for programs that advertise, collect personal information, or change the configuration of your computer without your knowledge. Some of these programs are not especially malicious as they seek to track your activities for marketing efforts, or force advertising pop-ups onto your screen. Some spyware, however, goes beyond this to actually track information such as your credit card or password details.
There are many ways spyware can be installed on your computer and in this article we would like to make you aware of these so you can best tackle it. We'll show you how to best avoid it, and if you are ever breached, how to remove it.

The unseen monster

With the increased inter-connectivity of today's computers, the problem of spyware has become even greater. Sites you visit, programs you install, banner ads you click on, can all have you unwittingly installing a spyware program.
One of the higher profile spyware incidents of recent times occurred at music giant Sony BMG. The controversy began in November, 2005 when it was discovered that CDs containing the company's XCP technology automatically installed a “rootkit” on Windows-based personal computers.
Rootkits are often used to conceal unauthorised software running on computers and allow intruders to maintain access for malicious purposes.
Critics said the software, which Sony BMG intended to help control music piracy, can cause serious harm to the user's computer, exposing it to virus threats, system crashes, or hackers. To make matters worse, the spyware was installed even if you rejected the license agreement.
Microsoft itself was forced to move in this matter, providing a security scan and update that searched specifically for the Sony spyware.
Sony has since removed the software from its CDs, but it underlines the difficult issue facing all computer users today.
It is safe to assume that a company like Sony would not use your details for fraudulent activities. However, there are forms of spyware out there that can track the keystrokes on your keyboard, or access the passwords you save in your computer.
If you have ever installed a file sharing program it is quite likely that a spyware program displaying advertisements was installed at the same time. Although these programs allow you to download them for free, you are forced into “paying” for the service through the targeted ads installed on your computer.

Are you infected?

At this very moment there could be a range of spyware programs running on your computer without your knowledge. Many of these might be difficult to detect, and some can only be found using specific tools. But before your run off and scan your computer there are a few signs you can look out for:
Pop-up advertisements – One of the most prevalent and annoying forms of spyware is unwanted pop-up advertisements bombarding your desktop. These can occur even when you do not have your web browser open.
Your computer settings have changed – Some spyware can actually change your web browser settings, and even when you change them back, they still revert to the spyware settings. This can force you to a certain page every time you start your browser or send you to alternative sites when searching.
Your computer seems sluggish – spyware can, and often does, perform quite poorly on your computer. It can add excessive pressure on your computer's resources whilst it tracks your activities and/or delivers advertisements. In some cases it can cause your computer to crash abruptly. If you notice sudden changes like these, you may have spyware.
Your firewall programs keeps detecting a program that wants to access the Internet – A feature of many popular firewall programs is detecting outgoing traffic (information being sent by your computer). Many modern programs often send out information, however, do you recognise the name of the program trying to contact the Internet? This can often be a tell-tale sign.

Safety through prevention

Internet security advisories often tell you that your best protection is through prevention. While this may sound simplistic, it is generally true when it comes to Internet security, and especially so with spyware. There are a range of very simply things that you can do that may save you from a lot of heart ache.
Aaron Hackworth, an Internet security expert with CERT, one of the world's leading centres on Internet security, believes better education is the key to tackling spyware. He recommends taking the following measures:

Be Alert

Many of the problems you encounter with spyware can simply be traced back to poor Internet surfing practices, says Mr Hackworth. He underlines the importance of exercising caution when downloading anything from public web sites, newsgroups, instant messaging sessions, or when opening email attachments, even from senders you know.
There are three main areas you need to be aware of when browsing the Internet:
  • Don't trust unknown or known high-risk sources – When visiting unfamiliar web sites, you should exercise caution. This is especially true with high risk sites that hit you with many pop ups, constantly ask or require you to install browser components, or those with content based around hacking or illegal software. If you must visit these sites do not allow them to install anything. Even if it has a prompt for “no”, use ALT-F4 to close the window, as clicking “no” may install spyware on your computer.
  • Read the fine print - If you decide to install an application obtained on the Internet, be sure to read all license or privacy agreements related to the software. Many people often consider this a nuisance and click on “yes” without having read a word. You must remember that this is an agreement you are making with the software vendor. If you do not read it, you may unwittingly agree to installing spyware or other questionable programs you knew nothing about. Sometimes you may have to ask yourself if you really need that software.
  • Pay attention when installing applications - Software installation packages sometimes take advantage of a user's tendency not to pay attention to the details and simply accept the default “checked” options. If the default options are accepted and prompts are ignored, clicking “next”, “next”, “next” may actually install spyware or other applications that you did not intend.

Use a firewall

These are your first line of defence. They put up a wall in front of your computer, protecting certain points from intruders. When you have “always on” broadband you are constantly at risk. A firewall can help prevent intruders getting in, and importantly, prevent them from installing spyware.
Some firewall programs can also alert you of spyware on your computer as they can detect attempts to contact the Internet. There is a built-in firewall in Windows XP (does not include out-bound detection), otherwise there are a range of free firewall programs available such as Zone Alarm.

Keep your computer and software patched

An out-of-date system is a prime target for spyware and unfortunately it is too often ignored. Keeping your operating system and programs that relate to Internet activity such as browsers, media players, email clients and news readers up-to-date is imperative. They are often targets for attack and many vendors release patches to protect them.

Alternative browsers

The reality is that a lot of spyware and hacking in general targets Microsoft products. It is not because they are less secure than other products on the market; rather as Mr Hackworth says, it is an economic matter of Return on Investment (ROI).
“Malware (form of spyware) authors would like to maximise the total financial value from their data collection efforts. To accomplish this they tend to target the largest market segment available,” he says.
“Because of the success of Microsoft and the fact that their success has led to them constituting the vast majority of client software running on the Internet, it makes sense that targeting these applications will produce a greater ROI.”
One solution might be as simple as using an alternative browser such as Firefox , Opera or Netscape . Apple computers also enjoy a near spyware-free environment due to their lower market share.

Browser security settings

Even with responsible browsing habits and a fully patched system things can go wrong. As mentioned earlier, some spyware can be installed without your knowing by taking advantage of exploits before a patch has been released.
There are features in your web browser that sites can take advantage of to install spyware without your knowledge. While you can turn these off, it has the unfortunate effect of breaking many modern websites. However, Mr Hackworth suggests you should set up your security settings in Internet Explorer (most browsers have similar options) to allow these extra components to work only with “trusted” sites.
You can do this by changing your security settings for the Internet Zone to “high” and the Trusted Sites to “medium”. When you visit a site you will be prompted to identify whether it is safe. If it is then it will be able to take advantage of the extra features to ensure a rich browsing experience. Sites that are not identified as safe will only have access to basic browser features.
Read the Microsoft article on "Working with Internet Explorer 6 Security Settings" to find out more.

Protect your system

We have mentioned it many times before, but the installation of anti-virus software is imperative on today's computers. Most of the anti-virus software programs available include a spyware checker. If your anti-virus software does not include this, there are a number of programs you can install which we'll cover next.
You can also download Sophos from UQ for free . This all-in-one package includes anti-virus, privacy control, firewall and importantly anti-spyware features.

Finding and removing pesky spyware

Even with a firewall, anti-virus, smart browsing habits and good security settings, some spyware may get through to your system. You could in fact have some on your computer this very moment. Fortunately there are a number of free products that can scan your system and remove it.
We recommend installing at least two of these on your computer, as no one program covers all of the spyware available on the Internet. You should only need to scan your system once a month, unless you notice erratic behaviour similar to what was mentioned above.
You can try these programs below:
  • Spybot Search & Destroy
  • AdAware
  • Microsoft's Windows Defender


Security is in your hands

If you follow the steps mentioned in this article and stay smart on the Internet you can proactively keep your system protected against the spyware lurking out there on the Internet.

Further reading

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