Adware and Spyware

What is Adware?

Adware is advertising supported software.  Software development costs are offset or supplemented by selling advertising space.  That space happens to be on your desktop.  Adware may also collect information about your web browsing habits for the purposes of targeting advertising specific to your interests.  Most adware programs are also spyware (see spyware below).  The use of advertising supported software by state entities has been determined to be unethical by the State of Washington Attorney General’s Office.

What is spyware?

Spyware is software that collects personal information about you and your computing habits and transmits it back to a central repository for analysis.  This data is then used to target advertising back to you through your web browser or via email.  To be truly classified as spyware rather than just adware, the software would have to be operating on your computer either without your consent or without full disclosure of what information is being gathered, who has access to it and what it will be used for.

How did it get on my computer?

The short answer is that you probably installed it.  Spyware is usually either disguised as a useful program or it comes packaged with a useful program.   Another way that this software finds its way onto your computer is known by the online community as “drive-by downloading”.  Having the security settings in your web browser set too low can allow software to be installed without your knowledge.  Finally, pop up ads may have misleading prompts that trick you into allowing the installation.  When in question, close the window by clicking the X rather than clicking OK.

Below is a short list of programs that are either confirmed or suspected of being spyware or include spyware as part of their installation.

  • AudioGalaxy
  • Aureate/Radiate – The spyware king, comes bundled with many packages
  • BearShare
  • Bonzai Buddy
  • Comet Cursor – installed by Real Networks products
  • CuteFTP – installs Aureate/Radiate
  • Ezula – installed by KaZaa
  • Gator – included with many products; caches your passwords; scary!
  • Hotbar – if you read the fine print it does warn you
  • LimeWire – AKA Gnutella
  • MusicCity Morpheous Preview Edition My Search Bar-will attach itself to your IE toolbars
  • SpyWareNuker – ironic, isn’t it?
  • StockBrowser
  • Webshots – only very old versions, newer versions are spyware free
  • Weatherbug - Adware: company denies the use of any spyware components in it's software.
  • Many many others…

Why is spyware bad?

Aside from sending personal information about you and your computer usage to parties unknown, spyware is responsible for a multitude of problems including: slow booting, slow processing, system instability or crashes, increased popup ads, increased spam email and increased network bandwidth usage.  As an example, Weatherbug displays the current local temperature and weather on your task bar.  If Weatherbug were installed on only one quarter of the staff machines on campus, our entire Internet bandwidth would be used up, even if the computers were otherwise idle.  Hotbar touts itself as an Outlook upgrade by allowing you to add pizzazz to your email messages.  It is not technically spyware because the privacy statement does inform you that it will use the information that it gathers to target advertising at you.  The mere fact that it directs advertising to your screen makes it unethical for use in state agencies.  There are also serious security concerns with these products.  KaZaa (a popular file and music sharing program), as an example, comes with a peer-to-peer network package called Altnet that will allow the developer, Brilliant Digital Entertainment, to use your computer’s processing power and network connection to distribute files and advertising as they wish.  If someone is able to either compromise their management system or exploit a flaw in their software, they could potentially control thousands of personal computers across the Internet.  Any software that communicates over a network is potentially vulnerable to attack.  Are you willing to trust people that run marketing firms to write secure software? 

How do I get rid of it?

Spyware programs can be very difficult to remove.  In many cases the uninstall program included with these little gems does not actually remove the spyware component.  It may appear to be gone but in actual reality it may still be gathering and transmitting information in the background without your knowledge.  Many of these programs alter existing programs on your computer, permanently altering how they operate.  Ezula, installed by KaZaa as an example, underlines words in your web browser creating links to competitors of pages you visit.  The procedure for completely removing these programs typically involves a series of registry edits.  Incorrectly manipulating the registry, either by “hand” or with the aid of a program, can leave your computer completely inoperable; therefore, this should only be done by computer service professionals.  The best way to avoid spyware is to not install programs on your office computer.  If you have a legitimate business or academic need for additional software you should work with Technology Support Services to purchase and arrange for installation.  If you suspect that you have spyware on your computer call the HelpLine at 5872.