Who's watching you?
SEPTEMBER 20, 2005
THERE'S nothing more likely to get computer users fired up than the thought that someone is stealing their data.
Our fear that personal and financial information could be grabbed without our knowledge goes a long way towards explaining why spyware (software that tracks what we type, where we visit and what we do on our computers) has grabbed so many headlines this year.
"Spyware has evolved from being an occasional nuisance to something that wastes IT user and technical support resources, and compromises the integrity of corporate systems, applications and data," say Gartner analysts John Girard and Mark Nicolett.
A study last year by IDC estimated that 67 per cent of PCs were infected with spyware.
Other sources say the incidence is as high as 90 per cent.
The 2004 SpyAudit report, collated from internet service provider data, suggests that system monitors, a common type of spyware, proliferated by 230 per cent during the year.
Disentangling these claims is difficult, in no small part because there's little consensus on a definition of spyware.
Spyware is any piece of unwanted software that tracks user activity, such as a keystroke logger that stores everything you type, or a package that notes every website you visit, and then sends that information to a third party.
A study by software developer Eblocs finds that 98 per cent of pornographic sites contain some form of spyware or adware (although we'd venture to suggest adware is the dominant offender).
Ad-supported software is widely distributed on the internet, and although some of these programs merely exist as a smokescreen to collect information and sell advertising, others, such as the popular browser Opera, legitimately employ ads as an alternative to users paying for the program.
An aditional complication is that many software developers claim that there are legitimate reasons for automatically collecting information.
Microsoft, for instance, encourages users to submit data about usage and error messages to facilitate product development plans, but allows users to opt out, something that true spyware is at pains to avoid.
Many vendors argue spyware is more effectively handled by general antivirus and security packages rather than with specific tools, because it often intersects with these areas.
Experts agree, however, that PCs infected with the more malicious forms of spyware represent a threat not just to the privacy of individual users, but to the internet at large.
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