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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Removing Spyware

Why Is Spyware Such a Big Problem

Before I discuss methods for fighting spyware, I want to take a moment and talk about why spyware is such a huge problem to begin with. The problem can be traced to two main causes; the sneaky way that spyware gets installed and the lack of good preventative solutions.
Let’s begin by talking about the ways in which spyware gets installed. Spyware gets installed in a variety of ways. Some main stream companies offer free programs that come bundled with various types of spyware. When you install the application, you are also installing the spyware component. Such companies often disclose their intent in the software’s end user license agreement. However, the end user license agreement tends to be so long and chalked so full of legal jargon that almost no one bothers to read it prior to installing the software.

While some companies bundle spyware with applications, other companies trick users into installing spyware. What typically happens is that during the course of surfing the Internet is that a user will see a pop up window that is disguised to look like a Windows error message. The actual error message displayed by these windows differs widely, but the goal is the same; to get the user to click on a button. The user thinks that they are clicking a button that will fix the alleged error, when in reality they are initiating a spyware installation sequence.
Still other forms of spyware are designed so that you neither have to install an application nor click a button. What tends to happen is that a malicious Web page does a good job of baiting a search engine to make it look as though the page contains something interesting. As an alternative, a malicious page may also be placed on a Web site that is a common misspelling for a popular Web site. For example, there are countless malicious Web sites targeting those who misspell google.com.

In either case, a user must simply visit an infected page to become infected with the spyware. Such a page typically makes use of ActiveX controls and exploits weaknesses in Internet Explorer.

Spyware can also be spread through E-mail in a similar manner. Mail programs such as Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express can receive messages either in plain text, rich text, or HTML. If a message is encoded in HTML, then the HTML document’s head may call a malicious script. A user doesn’t always have to read an infected message to have it infect their system. In some cases, just having the message displayed through Outlook’s preview pane is enough to cause the malicious script to execute. Fortunately, newer versions of Outlook allow you to block external HTML code.

As I explained earlier, the methods in which spyware spread are only a part of the problem. The other part of the problem is a lack of reliable methods for detecting and removing spyware. For some reason, the big anti virus companies have traditionally shunned spy ware. Over about the last year, more spyware detection and removal capabilities have been built into anti virus programs than ever before. Even so, the anti spyware capabilities built into anti virus programs tend to be mediocre at best. There is an interesting article on wired.com from last summer in which various anti virus programs were put to the test against spyware. I won’t bore you with all of the details since you can read the article for yourself at: http://www.wired.com/news/infostructure/0,1377,63978,00.html but I will tell you that in the test Symantec AntiVirus only caught four out of the nine pieces of spyware. The other anti virus products didn’t do much better. My point is that there are a lot of people out there who depend on their anti virus software to keep them safe while online, but do not realize that anti virus programs ignore the bulk of the spyware that’s out there.