A new bad kid on the block

Filed under: Focus |

They pop up on computers all over the country. The ads that often make Internet browsing and research a chore have a way of slowing things down. They want people to click yes to receive a free credit report. They ask for survey participants. They are even the bearers of bad news. When someone receives the message “Your computer may be infected with spyware,” they may be tempted to click “yes” on the ad – a form of spyware – to get rid of the problem. What some people don’t know, however, can seriously hurt their computers.

Spyware is a relatively new problem in the high-tech world. What originally started as annoying advertisements quickly turned into a high-tech bully. Spyware is the popular term for something called advertising supported software, also known as adware. Banner advertisements for CNN that appear on Web sites are a form of spyware.

But what does spyware actually do? In some cases, the advertisements that appear on Web pages are benign. But, from time to time, advertising companies install software that tracks the Web surfing habits of all Internet users. “The original purpose of spyware was to track Internet preferences for marketing purposes,” said Alan Glennon, owner of A Byte Above in Colorado Springs. For example, an advertising company may know that Joe Smith in Anytown, USA, frequents Web sites featuring information about the care of alpacas. “All of the trade magazines we get mention spyware in every issue,” Alan Glennon said.

Besides creating a nuisance and tracking Internet activity, spyware also can pose more serious threats. Malicious spyware, or “malware” for short, can pick up on keystrokes and record information such as Social Security numbers and credit card numbers. This opens the door for identity theft. Spyware also can act as a homepage hijacker. A computer’s Internet homepage will be set to America Online, for example, but with malicious spyware, a homepage will be reset to a strange search page. Along with all these problems, spyware can turn even the newest computers into dinosaurs.

A computer may acquire spyware any time a user logs on to the Internet. Pop-up ads appear on millions of Web pages of every variety, but there are some sites to stay away from just to be on the safe side. Music download sites, pornography sites and Internet gaming sites are a veritable minefield of pop-up ads, Alan Glennon said.

“It’s always been a buyer beware world, and the Internet is no exception,” said Jennifer Glennon of A Byte Above.

“The gamers are worse at this because they look for the cheapest sites,” Alan Glennon said. The search for the cheapest sites guarantees that an Internet gamer will visit many Web sites, many crawling with malicious spyware. The Better Business Bureau has an online reliability program which identifies BBB-protected sites by including its logo on protected sites. “If it is a disreputable site they won’t be on the site,” Jennifer Glennon said. “Just because they have a page doesn’t make them reputable.”

The record for the most spyware files found on one computer by the Byte Above staff was 6,300, Alan Glennon said. So many infected files essentially render a computer useless unless it is reloaded and the hard drive is cleaned and reinstalled. A Byte Above offers spyware and virus clean-up and critical update services for a flat fee of $50 for personal computers and $60 for laptops.

Trevor Dierdorff, president of Amnet Inc. said his staff once worked on a computer containing more than 1,000 spyware-infected files. “I’ve seen a machine so messed up by spyware that it had to be completely reloaded,” Dierdorff said. The computer’s hard drive had to be removed and all programs were reloaded. In addition to slowing a computer’s performance, all software on a computer may be destroyed by spyware.

“It’s very traumatic for people who don’t have back-ups,” Jennifer Glennon said. And spyware has been known to wipe out a computer’s registry. “It’s basically the master of files for Windows,” she said. Spyware can cause a computer to tell the user “Windows cannot start.”

Spyware removal software may be installed by A Byte Above and Amnet or by visiting www.download.com. A Byte Above installs the Ad-aware and Spybot programs to ensure a computer’s safety. These programs will scan for spyware on a regular basis. “By far it (spyware) is the biggest preventable problem,” Jennifer Glennon said.

Amnet uses and sells a program called Spysweeper, a service that, when installed into a 20-computer network, works out to a cost of about $30 per machine. “I would say that once it’s been dealt with with a product like this it’s no longer an issue,” Dierdorff said.

Every network that is connected to the Internet that Amnet has worked on, Dierdorff said, has been infected with spyware. Alan and Jennifer Glennon estimate that every computer in the nation contains about 20 to 30 spyware files at any given time, files that are non-malicious for the most part.

At the office, the effects of spyware can be sobering. “At the lowest level it becomes a nuisance but essentially what it does is saps bandwidth for a network,” Dierdorff said. Spyware also affects productivity in the office, because, after all, it shouldn’t take 10 minutes to do a Google search. “Spyware hurts profits because it hampers productivity,” he said. Installing removal software will protect a network, and a company, from a malicious spyware attack. “A $30 investment per year per employee is not much to boost productivity.”

While spyware is a hot topic today, it is still evolving and raising eyebrows everywhere. “Spyware is something we weren’t even talking about that much a year ago and not at all two years ago,” Dierdorff said.

The staff at A Byte Above did not see malicious spyware until the spring of 2004. And things are expected to get worse before they get better. “They’re expecting that cell phones will be affected by spyware,” Alan Glennon said.

Ninety-two percent of corporate information technology managers at companies employing 100 or more people said they have “major” problems with spyware, according to Boulder -based Webroot Software. “Malicious spyware is expected to surpass virus activity in two years,” Dierdorff said.

- Stephanie.Cline@csbj.com