Locating and Eliminating Software Spies

There are essentially four different kinds of software:

  • Retail software is just what its name implies: software you must purchase, either online or at a retail store.
  • Freeware is typically created by hobbyist programmers. They enjoy programming and offer their creations to others for free, with no strings attached.
  • Shareware is typically a program that is partially or fully functional for a limited period of time. The idea is that you get the opportunity to try the software out first before committing to purchasing it. Making the software only partially functional, or disabling the software after a certain period of time, motivates you to purchase the product if you find it useful.
  • Spyware (sometimes called Ad-ware) is the newest form of software. Here, we’ll take a look at what it is and what we want to do with it.

What Is Spyware?

We currently live in an unusual economic climate. Software companies will pay programmers to write programs, promote those programs, host huge Internet sites, and give the software away for free. How can they afford to do that?

With a little twisted marketing logic, it’s easy. These companies include hidden programs within their freely offered program. These hidden programs, called spyware, monitor your Internet activity.

They use your computer and your Internet connection to send information about the web pages you have visited, as well as your shopping preferences, back to the software company at regular intervals.

The companies can then sell this information to other companies. The other companies can use that information to determine what kinds of items you might be interested in purchasing, based on the web sites you visited and items you have purchased in the past. In short, spyware is advertising-supported software.

In addition, spyware can change your Internet startup page and alter important system files. Of course, the companies that create this software don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. After all, the user (that’s you) agreed to the terms and conditions prior to downloading and installing the software.

These terms and conditions are typically presented in an End User License Agreement (EULA), and you must acknowledge that you read and understood this agreement before you are allowed to download or install the software.

Most people never read the EULA. Those who do read it usually have no idea what any of the legal mumbo jumbo actually means.

Windows XP has a 28-page EULA that, in part, reads, “You specifically agree not to export or re-export the SOFTWARE PRODUCT (or portions thereof): (i) to any country subject to a U.S. embargo or trade restriction; (ii) to any person or entity who you know or have reason to know will utilize the SOFTWARE PRODUCT (or portions thereof) in the design, development or production of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons…”

As if anyone who would actually do this sort of thing would say, “Oh, I’m not allowed to do this? I guess I can’t install the software. My plans are thwarted again! Darn you, Microsoft!”

But hidden within the legal mumbo jumbo of a spyware company’s EULA is your agreement to allow the company to place tracking software on your computer, in exchange for some free software.

You are also agreeing to let that software report back to the company regularly at your expense (it’s using your computer and your Internet connection). You are also agreeing to not hold the company responsible if their software should cause any harm to your computer or data.

Because you agreed to the terms and conditions prior to downloading and installing the software, this is considered legal.

What’s the Problem with a Little Advertising?

Not all advertising supported by software is bad. Some software can actually be quite useful and be worth the tradeoff. However, a big problem is that many programs that contain spyware cannot be uninstalled or do not completely uninstall, leaving the tracking pieces behind.

As you continue to download and install free software, the spyware starts to accumulate on your PC. Instead of just having one or two programs spying on you, it’s quite common to find more than 100!

This typically results in your computer taking longer to start up (also called booting), poor computer performance overall, reduced resources available to other programs, as well as system lockups and crashes, not to mention taking up valuable space on your hard disk.

To make matters worse, some of these spyware companies attempt to trick you into downloading their spyware-laced software by displaying fake Windows error messages that appear quite genuine. These fake messages may say things like:

Your Computer is Currently Broadcasting an Internet IP Address
Your Internet Connection Is Not Optimized
Your Current Connection May Be Capable of Faster Speeds

What might concern you the most about spyware is that you have no way of knowing or controlling what information is being sent out from your computer.

Sure, the spyware companies claim they are not collecting any sensitive or identifiable data, but how do you know that for a fact?

The only way to know for sure is to remove any and all traces of spyware from your computer!