I spy trouble

Malicious software can copy your keystrokes, commandeer your computer and spy on your conversations

Malicious software can copy your keystrokes, commandeer your computer and spy on your conversations

July 27, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

That free music download could cost you your privacy - maybe even your identity.

Spyware hidden in shared music files, attachments to e-mail and instant messages, free game downloads, Internet pop-up ads and other applications secretly gathers user information and activity without the user's knowledge.

"The free software out there comes with a risk. It isn't free," Internet security software expert Jim Murphy said.

Spyware and other kinds of malware - malicious software - are engineered to damage your machine or interrupt the normal computing environment, according to the Spyware-Guide Web site at Such malware as spyware, adware, page hijackers, viruses and worms can clog up your computer - making it nearly impossible to navigate through the Net.

"A lot of this stuff is really annoying, and it disrupts your ability to use your computer, but it's not altogether dangerous," said Mike Pastore, managing editor of the Connecticut-based Intranet Journal at on the Web.


Some nasty spyware products, however, can cause real damage.

In addition to sending its creator information about Web sites or chat rooms you visit, spyware can take screenshots of your Web activity and record your keystrokes as you type them - including passwords and credit card numbers, according to the Spyware-Guide Web site.

"It's definitely a real issue," said Murphy, director of product marketing for SurfControl, a company that offers Web, e-mail and instant messaging filtering technologies to protect against Internet-based security threats, at on the Web. "It's growing, and we think it's going to continue to get bigger." lists the names of more than 400 known spyware products, ranging from "123Messenger" to "CoolWebSearch" to "ZipClix." EarthLink's SpyAudit program found an average of almost 28 spyware items per computer when it scanned more than 1 million PCs, Pastore wrote in a comprehensive article about the problem at on the Web.

Peer-to-peer file-sharing networks such as Kazaa are hotbeds for spyware because they offer countless access points for hackers and lack a strong system of checks and balances, Murphy said.

You probably won't know your computer's been infected with spyware unless it's embedded in an application that's using so many of your machine's resources - including memory and Internet connection - that it's causing the computer to slow down or act weirdly, Murphy said. Software that scans computer hard drives for spyware and destroys it offers the best protection for your machine, he said.

"Scanning and removal are well worth the investment to keep your machines safe," said Murphy, who also encouraged Web surfers to install a Web filter such as Cyber Patrol, which restricts access to sites deemed dangerous.

Other ways to avoid spyware include:

  • Steer clear of file sharing.

  • Don't click on dubious pop-up ads.

  • Use large instant-messaging providers, including AOL, MSN and Yahoo!

  • Do not open unknown e-mail or IM attachments.

  • Read the fine print in End User Licensing Agreements before clicking "OK" or "continue."

  • Install Internet browser and Web filtering software updates.

  • Enable firewall software on your computer, including the Internet Connection Firewall in Windows XP.

"My personal feeling is that 90 percent of avoiding spyware and adware is common sense," Pastore said. "The Internet is kind of like a city. If you go to the sketchy neighborhoods or deal with sketchy people, you're going to get in over your head."

Resources for help getting out of spyware trouble include and on the Web. For step-by-step instructions to better secure your Web browser, go to Pastore's article at on the Web.

Spotting spyware

Characteristics of spyware include:

  • installed without the end user's knowledge

  • often hard to uninstall

  • tracks, captures information ranging from keystrokes to data files

  • sends information back to spyware creator

- Source: Jim Murphy, director of product marketing for SurfControl

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