Bugged by spyware

25 Nov 2003

There are more than 7,000 spyware programs in existence, running on millions of corporate and personal computers, according to a report by the IT market analysts The Aberdeen Group.

No computer that’s linked to the internet is immune. A spyware program isn’t technically a virus so most antivirus scanners don’t attempt to stop it. And spyware doesn’t exploit bugs in Windows, so installing all the latest Microsoft security patches can’t prevent it either.

But does spyware really matter? What does it matter if everyone knows the intimate details of your staff’s surfing or shopping habits? Not only is it an invasion of privacy, it can also be a security risk. Do you really want a collection of large marketing organisations to know everything your employees use the Internet for? For example, if staff are researching new products or sending email to potential clients, is it really acceptable for details of such activity to be disclosed to all and sundry?

Spyware is already a big problem around the world. In Europe, one in three companies has detected spyware on its network. And the typical spyware program is prolific, typically transmitting 300 items of personal information, totalling some 1MB of data, from each infected machine every day.

If you are worried about spyware, here are our top tips for dealing with the problem.
1. Software authors often go to considerable lengths to hide the fact that their products include spyware, so it may not be immediately obvious whether there’s any on your PC. Check the small print of the licence agreement before installing any freeware or shareware.
2. Get into the habit of uninstalling any software that you don’t regularly use.
3. Some of the most common spyware applications include Gator (also known as GAIN), BonziBUDDY and Comet Cursor, each of which is included with many freeware and shareware products. If these products are mentioned within any of the programs you use, your computer is probably infected with at least one spyware tool.
4. Spyware programs aren’t viruses; so installing AV software doesn’t fully protect you from spyware.
5. Many spyware programs communicate through the same Internet port (80) as general web traffic, thus making it very difficult to block data transmission using a firewall.
6. Check out the privacy policy on the websites of the software you use, to find out what they use the collected information for.
7. If you are responsible for IT in a corporate environment, seriously consider the use of products such as Websense Enterprise. It automatically prevents users from downloading and installing programs that contain spyware. It will also ensure that any spyware application already installed on the user’s PC is unable to run, and thus stops it from transmitting confidential information.

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