The spy in your computer

Friday, May 14, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:54 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Imagine you’re being secretly followed while shopping in a supermarket. Everything you look at, a snooper records and radios to a distant boss. After turning a corner, you’re suddenly besieged with ads, sent by the boss, hawking everything from a time share to products designed to get rid of unwanted scars.

Chances are, you would not want to return to such a store. But this sort of shopping experience is being forced upon thousands of Americans every day — on their computers.

The culprit behind all this electronic snooping is spyware.

Similar to Trojan horse computer viruses, computer users download a program or attachment that has spyware imbedded in it. The secret applications hide themselves in users’ computers, monitor their activity on the Internet and send information to others, mostly for advertising purposes.

Users are then swamped with the Internet’s equivalent of door-to-door salesmen: pop-up ads.

“Most of us in advertising find this maddening,” said Clyde Bentley, an associate professor of journalism at MU. “It gives advertising a bad name. People using this are trying to make a quick buck.”

Pop-ads, a telltale sign that spyware has infiltrated a user’s computer, are ads that appear out of nowhere — offering, among other things, products that “improve performance” or the chance to win a million dollars.

The second symptom of spyware is a slow computer. Experts say if programs are taking longer to load or function, there’s a chance the computer is infected.

“(Spyware) files may be small,” said Bentley, who has studied spam and, in conjunction, spyware, “but as they add up, they sap your computer’s power.”

MU’s Information and Technological Services offers a few hints for guarding computers against spyware. First, IATS says, before installing an application, especially freeware, shareware or advertising-supported software, check sites like Spychecker, SuraSoft or Sutton Designs Inc.

Such sites list applications that contain spyware. If an application is on the list, don’t download it. Spychecker alone offers a list of more than 400 programs bundled with spyware. IATS also suggests avoiding downloading personal search engines.

To make sure a computer is not currently infected, IATS suggests using the application known as Ad-aware 6.0.

Ad-aware scans a computer’s memory, registry, hard drive, removable drives and optical drives for spyware and safely removes the applications.

Todd Krupa, communications officer for IATS, stresses that users have to download updates for Ad-aware and check weekly.

“You can’t just do it once and walk away,” Krupa said.

In fact, a computer scan of a Missourian reporter’s computer with an outdated version of Ad-aware found zero forms of spyware. After an update to the program, 70 forms of spyware were detected and destroyed.

Krupa said the deletion of even a few spyware programs can make a difference in the speed of a computer.

“There aren’t those little applications in the background looking to bother you,” Krupa said.

Ad-aware is an easy-to-use option for helping to defend your privacy. After downloading the program from Lavasoft’s Web site,, users simply double-click the icon and click the start button to perform a thorough search. At the end click “finish,” and the programs are deleted.

Krupa admits it’s hard to figure out how many MU computers have been infected by spyware because it’s native to the desktop — not the network. “It’s going to live on that computer,” he said.

The problem with the MU computer network, according to Krupa, is that a fair amount of computer users don’t even know what spyware is.

While the consensus is a strong dislike for pop-ups and their e-mail cousin, spam, Bentley said that trend could change.

“The difficulty here,” Bentley said, “is we haven’t quite normalized advertising in the online world.”

Bentley said Americans have become used to TV commercials and ads in their newspaper, so why should the Internet be different?

In fact, Bentley found that if users were offered a rebate on their Internet service, they would gladly accept spam.

“What spyware does is essentially throw out the whole idea of being normal by not telling you, ‘I’m putting a tracking device on you,’” Bentley said.

The problem is limiting the amount of spam and pop-up ads to what consumers want, and not bombarding them with ads for everything they don’t want.

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