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Spyware: An electronic pox on our PCs

A recent audit carried out by software firm Webroot and net service outfit Earthlink, found that on average every PC has 28 so-called spyware programs installed on it, a worrying trend that is causing half of all PC crashes and putting severe strain on support helplines.

The audit surveyed more than 1.5 million PCs over the past year and found more than 41 million instances of adware, tracking cookies, spyware, Trojans and other malicious programs that watch what's done on a PC and steal information about the user's activities.

Almost all operate without the user's knowledge, but some are more obvious to detect than others – for example, a homepage may be hijacked or the user may be redirected to unsavoury sites.

Others push ads at every opportunity, and get around any pop-up blockers installed.

However, the most malicious versions, usually created by virus writers, can be harder to detect, and will use PCs to spew out spam, or steal the login names and passwords used on banking websites.

Pete Simpson, manager of the ThreatLab at security company Clearswift, said: "The advertising spyware is irritating, but the real worry is the more sinister malware and the extended threats such as keystroke loggers stealing identities and personal information."

Just last week premium rate phone watchdog (ICSTIS) reported a sharp rise in Trojans known as "diallers," which connect dial-up Internet users to expensive phone numbers, leaving them with hefty phone bills.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for British-based security firm Sophos, explains: “Trojan horses secrete themselves on computers and are able to change the Internet settings so that dial-up connections always call premium-rate numbers rather than the regular ISP codes."

The problem is, according to Microsoft, users rarely realise that spyware is the problem.

Plus, it is costing computer manufacturers millions in support costs.

Dell in the US reported that spyware issues now account for 12 per cent of calls to its technical support lines.

Whilst SupportPlan, a UK IT call centre, reported a six per cent rise in spyware problems over the past three months.

And because deceptive software is often the cause of slow connections or malfunctioning browsers, ISPs are also being hit because it leads subscribers to question the value of their broadband connection.

Programs such as Ad Aware, Spy Bot and Webroot's Spy Sweeper can clean up PCs. But like anti-virus software, they have to be kept up-to-date to be effective.

As well as software to root out spyware, legislators are getting in on the act too.

Some politicians in the US are now trying to ban spyware altogeather. For example, New York Senator Michael Balboni has filed a bill to make the unauthorised uploading of spyware to a user's machine an out-and-out crime.

But Stuart Okin, chief security officer at Microsoft UK, said: "The trouble is that there is no clear definition of spyware."

"Because Microsoft believes that the user should be in control, we have put controls in XP Service Pack 2 such as pop-up blockers and a firewall that alerts the user if an application is trying send information. This should help combat spyware."

As the race hots up between its fans and foes, spyware makers are adapting increasingly extreme tactics to protect their inventions. Whether or not laws can be drafted quick enough remains to be seen. So in the mean time - watch out! Someone might just have their eye on you...

Sources: BBC Online, New Media Age,

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