BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2001

  

 

BOOT CAMP 184 (19/07//01)

 

SPYWARE

 

Its friends – and there's precious few of them -- call it Advertising Supported Software or Adware; many of those who know it prefer the term 'Spyware', which as the name suggests is software that can secretly gather data from your PC and transmit it back to a company or individual.

 

If you are a regular web user there is a very good chance that you have at least one item of adware/spyware hidden on your PC, using your Internet connection -- without so much as a by-your-leave -- to send back the information it has collected to its masters. Adware programs can get onto your PC in a variety of ways but the most common route is via 'freeware' and 'shareware' programs, or just clicking on a banner ad on a web page

 

The idea is simple and from the outside it all sounds quite reasonable. Adware enables software authors to make money from 'freebie' programs by allowing companies to embed adverts into their products in return for a share of the income or marketing statistics they generate. Everyone is happy, we get genuinely useful, well-featured programs for nothing and advertisers get to promote their products or services. If honestly and openly implemented it is likely that few people would object to the concept.

 

The trouble is that in a lot of cases it is not open or honest and any mention of the adware element's presence is usually hidden away in a weasely statement or a densely worded licence agreement. Phrases like 'integrated sponsored messaging technology', and '…includes software that will occasionally notify you of important news', are unlikely to ring alarm bells for most PC users. Those responsible know full well that few people ever bother to read, let alone attempt to decode these documents. What makes the whole business even more worrying is that some spyware programs can continue to function even if the 'host' software it came in on is deleted and there has also been at least one case of an adware program that can disable the PCs Internet connection if it is removed.

 

Ostensibly the purpose of adware is to gather demographic information and usage statistics for advertisers. A typical example of how this works in practice is the Aureate DLL program, which is embedded in hundreds of shareware and freeware programs. When the host program is running Aureate automatically downloads banner adverts from its home site. It records and reports back which ones have been displayed and clicked on. This information is assigned a unique identity number, which is then used to tailor the selection of ads sent to the users PC. It sounds innocent enough but this effectively opens an insecure back door into the PC concerned that could be exploited for nefarious purposes.

 

Proponents of adware claim that the data sent back to them contains no personal or private details that could be associated with the user. That is undoubtedly true in a lot of cases, nevertheless there are plenty of well documented cased where a users email address and name has been discovered in spyware uploads. The fact is these programs have the potential to do a great deal more than just report on a user's ad clicking habits but the key point is that it is done covertly, the PC owner has no way of knowing what sort of information is being revealed, or indeed that it is even happening in the first place.

 

Adware programs are executable files that can do anything a normal program loaded onto a PC with the owners permission is allowed to do. It is certainly possible for such a program to scan and access files on the hard disc, change settings, monitor keystrokes and chat-room messages and write information to the hard disc. Several spyware programs have been blamed for causing browser and system crashes and instability.

 

At the moment almost 1000 programs and utilities are classified as having a spyware element (see Links), there could be many more, and some big names have been implicated, including Mattel, Netscape and RealNetworks. Internet guru Steve Gibson's web page at Gibson Research (see Links) gets a bit technical in places but it is definitely worth reading.

 

So what can you do about it? The first thing to do is actually read licence agreements on any freeware and shareware software you download onto your PC, before it is installed.  Don't just click the 'agree' button, look out for tell-tale phrases, like 'information may be gathered during your use of this product', 'integrated tracker software', 'sponsored messages', 'background use of your Internet connection…', or 'tracker or locator information may be used to forward product information to you'.

 

You should review your Internet browser program's security settings to make sure that ActiveX controls cannot be loaded without your permission. In Internet Explorer go to Options on the Tools menu, select Security and click Custom. At the top of the list make sure the 'Prompt' box is checked next to the item: 'Download signed ActiveX controls'. If you're feeling particularly paranoid you might want to set 'Run ActiveX controls and plug-ins' and Script ActiveX controls marked safe for scripting' to Prompt as well. This will result in an increase in pop-up confirmation boxes when you are surfing, but better safe than sorry…

 

Better still, install some protective software (see also Top Tip) that will stop your PC's browser making unauthorised calls to web sites. One of the most effective programs in this respect is our old friend ZoneAlarm, the superb free (to home users) Firewall program from Zone Labs. In addition to Zone Alarm's essential Internet intruder blocking facilities it will also tell you every time a program tries to send data.

 

SPYWARE WEB LINKS

http://grc.com/downloaders.htm

http://www.infoforce.qc.ca/spyware/

http://www.spychecker.com/

http://www.cexx.org/spysites.htm

 

Zone Alarm

http://www.zonelabs.com/

 

Next week –  Top ten PC gadgets

 

JARGON FILTER

 

ACTIVEX

Powerful programming tools used to add multimedia components and features to Internet web pages

 

BANNER ADVERTISING

Advertising graphic on a web page that when clicked will take you to the company's web site

 

FIREWALL

Program that monitors an Internet connection, preventing unauthorised access to files on your PC whilst on-line

 

 

TOP TIP

Is there any adware or spyware programs lurking on your PC? One easy way to find out is with a program called Ad-Aware. It's freeware and the file is around 860kB in size so it should only take a few minutes to download. Once installed it is very simple to use and normally takes just a couple of minutes to scan a 10Gb hard disc drive. If it finds any adware files it offers to safely isolate and delete them. Ad-Aware is routinely featured on PC magazine cover-mount discs but I recommend that you use the latest version (v5.5), which is now available from: http://www.lavasoftusa.com/

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