TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE
NOTHING.BUT.NET WITH RICK KLAU
Spyware: Call Out the Guards
Spyware can pose a threat to your data and, by extension, that of your clients. Learn how to avoid the snoopers.
In her 1943 book The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand wrote: "Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy…Civilization is the process of setting man free from men." It is not hard to imagine Rand being terrified by the Internet. Not only has its evolution meant a fundamental reshaping of what we believe "privacy" to mean, but as we progress, the very notion of privacy seems increasingly elusive.
The prevalence of spyware among today’s personal computers is a case of less, not more, privacy. Spyware is software that usually runs without the individual user’s knowledge. It monitors activity—anything from Web sites visited to keystrokes tapped—and then transmits that information to someplace, or someone, else.
Is It Helping or Harming?
Have you ever watched that little icon in your Windows task bar that shows your connection to the network? You can see when your computer is transmitting or receiving data. The blue box in the lower-left shows data being transmitted; the blue box in the upper-right shows data being received. (If you don’t see it, go to Start-Settings-Control Panel; double-click on Network and select your LAN connection; and then click on the box "Show icon when connected.") If you’ve ever noticed the lights blinking when you’re not doing anything on your computer, you may well have someone—or, more likely, something—spying on you.
In his column on page 16, Erik Heels discusses some of the more appropriate situations in which spyware may be used to monitor e-mail activity. Whether it’s your firm policy to monitor employee communications or it’s your administrator simply looking out for virus-like behavior to protect the network, there are certainly legitimate reasons such software may be installed. At its most benign, spyware is simply a nuisance. But at its most dangerous, it can represent a real threat to your information. Read on for tips on how to avoid, disable or completely remove such software.
Adware: Are You Being Tracked?
The first trick is to find out if you’re being watched. There are a number of spyware applications, known as adware, that monitor people’s Internet behavior for profit. What sites you visit, what files you download—such user-profile data are very useful to marketers. These applications then try to target which ads you see, and will even serve up ads in separate pop-up windows when you run certain applications. All the decisions about which ads you view become based on your browsing behavior.
To discover if you have any such applications resident on your system, go to www.spychecker.com and click on Downloads. There, you can download a number of utilities (the best by far is Ad-aware) that can detect and remove spyware applications.
To learn more about this type of spyware, visit Steve Gibson’s "OptOut" page about spyware at http://grc.com/optout.htm. (Also see Dan Coolidge’s "Watchdog Utilities" list on page 9 for other resources, including a utility for stopping those annoying pop-ups.)
Key-logging: Stop That Snooping
A more serious threat to your privacy is someone trying to capture every keystroke from your machine, a.k.a. key-logging. In addition to learning what sites you’re visiting and what files you’re accessing, that someone may be able to discern your passwords and other confidential items.
X-Cleaner detects and removes a variety of spyware programs, including key-logging and snooping software. Go to www.xblock.com for details. There’s a deluxe version (which costs $29.95), as well as a more-limited free version that will still clear your browser cache, delete all cookies and remove a number of Recent Files lists. It’s like virtually wiping down any fingerprints. Anyone snooping into your computer will have a much harder time identifying where you went and what you did. The deluxe version eliminates even more types of information. If you’re on a shared computer or are worried about others accessing your machine, spending the $29.95 is probably a sound move.
Firewalls: Another Layer
A primary goal of any firewall is to prohibit unauthorized communication between your computer and anyone else’s system. To that end, firewalls will likely catch much of the spyware communication and tell you when spyware programs are trying to communicate with their mother ship.
For example, Zone Alarm, which is free at www.zonealarm.com, displays a dialog box informing you that an application is trying to send data. You then have the option of disabling that application or blocking the communication. The increased security from any outside "attacks" on your computer, coupled with the security of knowing that no one can collect information about you and transmit it out, makes it well worthwhile to install Zone Alarm on your machine.
(For more on firewalls and how to check your system’s vulnerability, see the November/December 2001 nothing .but.net column.)
Be on the Alert
If you’re at all uneasy about the prospect of someone virtually looking over your shoulder and building a profile of your computer habits, take the time to check out the links covered here. Although the Internet makes capturing a lot of the data easier, it also makes it a little easier for you to access resources to defeat the same systems that could spy on you. Keep your eye on that taskbar and those little blinking lights. Who knows, you might catch the transmittal of something you’d rather not let others see.
Rick Klau (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Vice President of Legal Markets at Interface Software, Inc. in Oak Brook, IL. He is co-author of the ABA book Law Law Law on the Internet: The Best Legal Web Sites and More.