A Feeling of Being Watched

Imagine if you will, a spy, assigned to you personally. He watches your every move. Takes notes of everything you do. Then he uses your own telephone to call back to base and report his findings. A sinister fantasy perhaps, but this is what is happening to millions of internet users every day. It happens to them because they have unwittingly downloaded and installed spyware on their computer.

Trouble in Paradise

Many of the “free” programmes we download actually make us pay in ways that don’t involve our wallets. They include components that watch what we do online – spyware. The sites we visit say a lot about the type of people we are, and this information can be sold to marketing companies. This may not seem to be problematic. But it is and I’ll tell you why – programmes running out of sight, sending information back to base slow down both your computer and your internet connection.

Browser Hijack

In addition to watching you, some of these components will download adverts and pop-up windows. They hijack your browser and take you places you didn’t want to go. You see this all the time in internet cafes in Arusha. Search for something, and ads start to appear. New windows you didn’t ask for. There are even spyware components which will replace adverts on web pages you are viewing with their own. This is like spam, but not in your email.

Buried in Fine Print

When you install software there is often a screen showing a long and complicated contract. In order to install the software you have to agree to the contract. Who among us actually reads these long and boring tracts before clicking Agree? Hidden inside the contract you may find agreement gives permission to monitor your online behaviour and send this information back to base. This means your computer’s resources and your bandwidth will be used by the company that gave you the software. Seem like a fair deal? So why hide it deep within lengthy small print? In reality these components are snuck onto peoples’ computers without their knowledge. An underhand business technique, I am sure you will agree. If they said upfront this would happen, would you still install the software? More worrying is that software you have actually paid for can also include spyware.

Spotting the Double Agent

How can you tell if programmes you have installed include spyware? The first thing you might notice is a new icon at the very bottom right of your screen, next to the time. Common pieces of spyware, DateManager, and its partner PrecisionTime, appear here. If you have either of these on your computer, chances are you never asked for them, and they don’t do anything useful for you. They are part of GAIN (Gator Advertising & Information Network), whose software downloads adverts and reports on your activities online.

It is often hard to tell if your computer has been infiltrated – most software is designed to remain hidden. Often removing the software that installed the spyware will leave the spyware in place and active. So how do you get rid of it?

Counter Espionage

Some people have become very angry about these questionable practices. Some of them have developed software, similar to anti-virus software, which detects and removes this type of nuisance, as well as some others. One such programme
is Ad-Aware, which is free to download, and easy to use. The default settings will remove most sneaky stuff. Like anti-virus software, updates are available, and should be checked for regularly.

Running Ad-Aware on even a newly purchased computer can turn up as many as 90 suspect components! If you run an internet caf� you will doubtless find even more on your machines, as your customers download to their hearts’ content.

Another useful utility is a personal firewall such as Zone Alarm. This allows you to take control of all communication between your computer and the internet. Zone Alarm will tell you which programmes are connecting to the internet. You can choose to block ones that look unfamiliar. Zone Alarm will also protect your computer from external intrusion – if someone tries to crack their way into your computer, Zone Alarm will let you know, and keep them out. It also offers protection against viruses that try to connect to the internet. Zone Alarm is available for free from Zone Labs’ web site.

Friendly alternatives

What all spyware has in common is that it installs alongside software you actually want. For example, popular music download programme Kazaa installs a whole suite of spyware. Thankfully, some clever users out there have created Kazaa Lite, a version that runs without the spyware (and includes some improvements too!) If you are suspicious that a piece of software will install spyware, search around the internet. Chances are there is a more honest alternative.

Interesting web sites

  • www.lavasoft.de – provides Ad-Aware, a free programme for removing spyware
  • www.grc.com – Steve Gibson started this battle against spyware. His site includes a lot of information about computer security in general – essential reading for the savvy internet user.
  • www.kazaalite.nl – free music download software, and that really means free.
  • www.zonelabs.com – producers of Zone Alarm, a great personal firewall.

Originally published in Arusha Times 276

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