hese days—whether we are checking the latest stock quotes, sending an email to an old high school friend, or instant messaging a relative in another country—there may be someone monitoring every move we make. This trend is more than a little disconcerting, striking at the heart of our sense of privacy and freedom. Unfortunately, spyware and adware have become an all too common annoyance and security risk.
But what exactly is spyware, and how is it different from adware? What sort of harm can these programs cause? And is it possible to control them? These are all good questions. And despite the confusion surrounding these technologies, each question has an equally good answer.
Is it spyware, adware, or simply unwelcome? There is some debate—even among security experts—over the definition of spyware. However, if a program installs itself on your computer so it can capture private information without your knowledge, it's probably spyware. If the main purpose is presenting ads or routing you to a commercial site, it's adware. Of course, what you call the software doesn't really matter. The most important question is whether you want it on your computer. If it compromises privacy and security as you define it (or at a minimum, becomes an nuisance), then it falls squarely into the category of unwelcome software. And that means you need to learn how to deal with it.
How harmful can it be? While a lot of spyware and adware programs are fairly harmless, some spyware puts your privacy, data, and identity at risk. These programs employ clever, highly sophisticated methods to get at your most private information. And while not all spyware is dangerous, that's not to say their more benign cousins aren't a serious problem. Programs that constantly launch pop-ups are maddening. And some spyware and adware, working busily in the background, can dominate your system's resources, sometimes bringing down your entire system.
Where does it come from?
So, how does this unwelcome software find its way onto your computer? It can happen in a number of ways. Spyware and adware often get installed along with free programs you download from the Internet. Or they can make their way onto your machine as you surf the Web, in many cases lurking behind an intriguing pop-up window or fake dialog box. And while some spyware programs sneak quietly through browser security holes, downloading unwelcome software typically requires some action (or inaction) on your part. And that's good news, because it means you retain a fair amount of control.
How do you avoid spyware and adware? The following practices can reduce the likelihood of inadvertently downloading unwanted spyware and adware:
Be selective about what you download to your computer. If you don't have a reason to trust the company providing a piece of software, hold them to increased scrutiny. Visit their Web site to learn more about the people behind the technology, as well as the technology itself.
Read licensing agreements. Don't just scroll to the bottom and click the "I accept" button when installing freeware. Instead, read each agreement carefully and look for language pertaining to information-gathering activity.
Watch out for antispyware scams. The Web is rife with "antispyware" tools that do little or nothing to prevent spyware, and some even make it worse. Purveyors of these tools often provide free scans, which almost invariably identify hundreds of spyware programs on your computer. They then immediately ask you to buy their bogus product.
Beware of programs—especially free ones—that flash clickable ads in the user interface. Their presence is a red flag, and it's possible someone is watching how you respond to them.
Keep your Internet browser up to date. Because browser security holes are a common pathway for spyware and adware downloads, it's important to apply any and all security patches when they become available for your browser.
Disable scripting and active content unless you really need it. Scripts—especially ActiveX controls—are common tools for installing spyware without your knowledge or consent. You can always turn on scripting should you need it for a trusted site.
These recommendations go a long way toward reducing the amount of unwelcome software on your computer. However, even the most vigilant users can't stay on top of everything. That's especially true as the methods of spyware distribution continue to evolve, becoming ever more sophisticated. Fortunately, despite the widespread existence of fly-by-night antispyware vendors, it's possible to get effective spyware protection tools from trusted security experts. With a good anitspyware solution, you control what gets in, what stays out, and what remains on your computer.
In the end, that's the only way to get a handle on unwanted, uninvited software: by taking control. Spyware and adware aren't going away anytime soon, and fortunately, you can take charge of the situation.