With the recent controversy surrounding Phorm’s targeted advertising technology it is important to think about the increasing threat that spyware poses to users’ PCs in 2008. Phorm’s software was recently controversially trialed by British Telecom to track the surfing habits of individual users and then tailor adverts to match their particular interests.
This is worrying since a third party organization might be able to compile substantial information about the user based on their surfing habits and then potentially resell this information to other organizations. This is especially concerning since you wouldn’t want your health insurance premiums to start rising just because you had started to search the Internet for articles associated with high blood pressure or diabetes.
Phorm have argued that any data collected would be anonymous and wouldn’t identify the end user, however questions have been asked about how reliable this protection is. Although British Telecom tested Phorm’s software on their own clients, without alerting them, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has stated that Phorm would need to be an opt-in service in the UK to be legal.
Phorm isn’t the only organization whose aggressive attitude towards behavioral targeting has raised hackles. Google may have stated that it should do no evil, however Google mailhas received criticism for the way it scans the user’s inbound and outbound emails in order to match the user’s interests with targeted ads. And Google is further able to match up user data stored on cookies across its network. When even industrial worthies such as British Telecom and Google are looking for a piece of our private data it is no surprise that there are also a whole range of other, less reputable firms, looking to install software on your computer that tracks online activity. Which brings us to spyware.
Spyware is software that is installed on a user’s computer, without their express permission, whose function is to monitor, or take some degree of control over, a person’s PC. Spyware can get up to all kind of shenanigans including: tracking what sites you visit and sending this information to third parties (either for general purposes such as targeted marketing, or more specifically to steal information from you); monitoring the information you enter into online forms to steal you data and possibly even passwords; modifying your search results; changing your Explorer settings; and launching annoying pop-up ads.
The distinction between adware and spyware is a fine and often, possibly intentionally, blurred one. An application like Bonzi Buddy was ostensibly an online interactive assistant and animated desktop widget in the form of a cartoon purple ape. However, specific criticism leveled at it included that it would reset the user’s IE home page, track their browsing activity and launch adverts.
All this is the sort of activity you would expect from spyware, but the company responsible for Bonzi buddy always denied that the software was spyware. And, indeed, they may have had a case: the software is no longer available, but if it were we might find that the end-user license agreement permits all this activity, making the application merely adware. A different program, which is generally seen as perfectly legitimate, is the Alexa toolbar. Alexa is a subsidiary of Amazon offers services tracking the popularity of websites, and the surfing habits of their users, through a toolbar that the users install on their PC. These toolbars then forward information to Alexa who then compile it to form their rankings.
Even though Alexa is well-known and all end-users install the software voluntarily, Alexa is still identified as spyware, by some antispyware applications, since the bottom line is that Alexa is tracking your online activity and sending it to a third party. This is why it is so important that you do read those lengthy and rather tedious EULAs and make sure they include no sly reference to “monitoring your Internet usage” or “helping us provide you with a better service” which are generally a good indication that the software you are installing could be spying on you. If spyware can live in the grey area between malware and legitimate(ish) adware, where it is installed with the “informed” consent of the user, then it also unambiguously lives in the world of malware where it can be installed entirely without the end-user’s consent.
Spyware uses a number of tricks to sneak onto your PC. For example it can be installed along with a “useful” application such as Bonzi buddy, a freeware media players or a P2P file sharing application. Spyware also employs those irritating pop-up windows that appear, imitating Windows error messages, asking you to click to fix the problem, or improve PC performance. Whatever you click you may end up authorizing the installation of spyware on your system.
Spyware can also be spread through email attachments which, in some cases don’t even need to be actively executed by you, with it being enough that the email is displayed in the MS Outlook preview panel. In fact some spyware is even more nefarious taking advantage of security loopholes in Microsoft’s ActiveX. In these cases you can be infected with spyware simply by visiting a malicious website: a so-called drive-by download.
If spyware writers are adept at infiltrating our PC’s security systems to get spyware on to our computers in various mischievous ways, they are equally adept at making sure it doesn’t get removed from our computers. Spyware will update the Windows registry to have itself launched automatically by Windows. It will then monitor the registry to detect whether the spyware-launching entries in the registry have been removed and then replace them if they have.
The moral of all of this is that, as ever, prevention is the best cure, so avoid clicking on pop-up windows, and applications or web-links that your receive through email. As discussed actually reading the EULAs that accompany software downloads is also a useful way to keep on top of what you are installing, while you should also avoid installing anything on your computer unless you know that it is produced by a reputable software developer.
If you aren’t sure about the credibility of an application, check it out on Wikipedia.org and if you are looking for a specific type of software, or freeware (say if you need a free media player or anti-virus software), again, search for it using Wikipedia. The disadvantage of searching using a search engine is that you won’t be able to tell from the results, how reputable the company providing the software actually is. With Wikipedia you will at least have the reassurance of knowing that the many experts in that particular field, who have viewed and written the Wikipedia entry, have tacitly endorsed the veracity of the content.
And the final weapon in your antispyware arsenal should definitely be antispyware software. There are a range of effective applications which primarily employ one of two strategies. There are those that work in real-time blocking any incoming data that they identify as spyware, while there are those which work retroactively by scanning your system to identify spyware that has already been installed on your system. Whatever you do remember that spyware is a real threat to your system’s security and stability: even if you neglect spyware, that doesn’t mean that spyware will neglect you!