Protecting yourself from Spyware

If you use a computer, you've probably heard of spyware. For many, the name alone conjures images of James Bond style spy gear. In fact, spyware is very much like Bond's accoutrements, in that it can be used to gather information surreptitiously.

Sounds too fantastic to be true? Unfortunately, no. With spyware, hackers can access a copy of everything you type on your computer keyboard. While there may be nothing confidential in your emails, if you access your bank accounts, check your credit card balances or purchase things online, you might be sharing more sensitive information than you know.

What is spyware?

Spyware is code that is hidden on a computer or installed as part of another program without the user's knowledge. It can be used to gather customer data, display advertising, track computer usage and even to take control of your computer. While some spyware is somewhat innocuous and is simply used to keep track of your preferences or collect non-personal data to inform advertisers, other spyware is quite insidious. Hackers can use this harmful technology to gain access to your social security and credit card numbers-- as well as your address and other personal information.

Any data collection program that works on your computer is generally called spyware, although when it works to control advertising, it is sometimes called adware. In addition to invading your privacy, spyware can affect the performance of your computer, slowing it down or interfering with other programs. Other things that spyware may do include changing your browser default homepage, modifying security settings, displaying windows that cannot be closed, launching viruses and logging individual keystrokes.

Spyware is not just a problem on home computers. It can be used on business computers and could compromise the integrity of systems such as schools, retail establishments, banks and other financial organizations. Spyware is a growing tool used to conduct identity theft.

Anti-spyware legislation

While there have been several attempts to make the use of spyware illegal, legislation has not yet been successfully passed. Utah passed the first law to combat spyware, but opponents secured an injunction citing that the law was too broad and infringed on the rights of legitimate businesses. Attempts at national legislation are still underway.

Several corporations including Microsoft, Earthlink, McAfee and Hewlett Packard have formed an Anti-Spyware Coalition in order to try to define and classify the problem. The coalition hopes that by standardizing the terms, they can help the government control those who use spyware unethically.

In addition, the FDIC has launched a new program to educate consumers and banks about the dangers of spyware and how to minimize the threat.

How does spyware get on my computer?

Most often, spyware is installed on your computer when you download and install another program. Most often, spyware is attached to freeware or shareware software. Other times, spyware is distributed via email and is downloaded when a user clicks on a link in the message.

What can you do to protect yourself from spyware?

If you use public computer terminals, such as those in libraries, internet cafes and other public places, you should exercise caution. Spyware programs that capture keystrokes can give hackers access to any passwords, credit card numbers or other private information you enter.

On your own computer, avoid unnecessary downloads and routinely use anti-spyware software to monitor your system for unwanted programs. Several popular anti-spyware programs include Ad-Aware, and Spybot. Symantec's AntiVirus software also has some spyware combating functionality.

Finally, encourage your representatives to pass protective legislation. Invasive spyware and adware are a growing problem. More than just an inconvenience, sinister spyware components can be used by criminals to steal sensitive financial and personal information—something we all need protection from.