Hot Stuff: Anti-Spyware Software
I confess that my work sometimes drive my technical focus rather than the other way ’round. Thus, my recent work on a new book, “The PC Magazine Guide to Fighting Spyware, Adware and Malware” (J Wiley & Sons, 2004) has helped me to learn a great deal about the kinds of unwanted software that all too often wind up on PCs these days. Recent news coverage about spyware indicates that as many as 90 percent of all PCs may contain up to 30 such unwanted software items per machine. (One survey counted 18 million items on 650,000 PCs surveyed.)
By definition, spyware is software or data-gathering capability that gets covertly installed on computers, with the idea of reporting on user activities, preferences and so forth as opportunities arise. Web browser cookies represent the most common instance of this type of thing, but software-tracking widgets abound. Likewise, adware is software that makes it possible for a Web site to send one, several or a seemingly endless stream of advertisements to Internet-connected machines, either in the form of inline ad banners (inside Web pages users ask for) or in separate pop-up windows. This category of software or activity also includes Web pages that reset browser defaults (home page and search engine settings are by far the most common items changed) or software that installs toolbars, changes browser settings and in general asserts control without informing users what’s going to happen or asking for permission.
This can be a huge pain to deal with, especially for those tasked with cleaning up the sometimes formidable messes that result from such activity. Antivirus software is no help for this kind of thing, so another category of software has emerged to meet this need. It’s commonly called anti-spyware when it combats or cleans up spyware, or anti-adware software when its focus is adware instead. In addition, it’s pretty normal to use separate utilities to scan systems and clean up unwanted software and something else to monitor real-time activity and block unwanted software from entry. The former type of utility is called a spyware or adware removal or cleanup tool, the latter a spyware or adware (sometimes, pop-up) blocker.
The Top Ten Reviews Web site has a great comparative review of anti-spyware tools. Its top-ranked items, the commercial, subscription-based SpySweeper and freeware program Spybot Search & Destroy, are both worth grabbing and checking out. Because SpySweeper finds and removes so much more than the other tool I tried, I decided it was worth its $29.95 annual subscription fee (for software and signature updates).