Protect computers against spyware

AntiSpyware —  Bryan Daugherty, assistant director of UAM's IT department, recommended Microsoft's security Web site. The site contains their 'AntiSpyware' program as well as Windows security updates.
Michael Ford

   The University of Arkansas – Monticello’s Information Technology department contends with malicious computer programs on a daily basis. Spyware, one of the most prominent of these programs, now infects nearly 90 percent of personal computers, according to the National Cyber Security Alliance.

   By submerging themselves deep within Web browsers and creating windows overflowing with pop-ups, spyware programs can convert a computer’s operating system into an advertisement generator. While some programs prohibit access to any application, others remain obscure, covertly obtaining personal information about the user.

   “Spyware is software written specifically to collect information about you, the user,” said Carmen Lockling, an Information Technology specialist at Bemis Company.  “It tells the program’s creator about your surfing habits (what Web sites you visit); in some cases spyware collects your credit card numbers, bank account numbers (if you use online banking) and passwords.”

   Associate professor of Computer Information Systems James Roiger said to use only secured and encrypted Web sites when shopping and purchasing online.

   “Many Web sites install ‘cookies’ on your computer when you visit them,” Roiger said. “You can go into your setting preferences on your browser and turn ‘cookies’ off, realizing that some Web sites will not be available. You can also set your preferences so that all cookies are deleted when you shut down your browser. This is the protocol that I follow.”

   In many cases, computers become infected without the user knowing until rebooting and being plagued with ads and pop-ups all over their desktop. Additionally, a computer may simply be operating sluggishly – a frequent characteristic of spyware that occurs when programs upload information to a server, or download ads.

Spyware maintains the ability to:

  • Excessively advertise
  • Track Web habits and transmit it to marketing companies
  • Create additional advertising links on Web sites
  • Redirect browser homepages
  • Call premium-rate phone numbers with a modem
  • Leave security holes allowing the creator to run the software
  • Degenerate system performance and initiate errors
  • Provide no uninstall feature and hide removal codes

   Vulnerabilities in Microsoft's Windows operating system and Internet Explorer Web browser provide spyware the easiest access onto computers without the user’s knowledge. Microsoft recently fought back, by releasing “Service Pack 2” and “AntiSpyware” – programs intended to help protect Windows users from spyware and other potentially unwanted software.

   Roiger said programs that purport to prevent adware and spyware as “hit-or-miss” at best, because one recent spyware prevention program actually installed its own “spybot.”

   Due to sinister developers randomizing the name and size of their malicious files in successive versions, anti-spyware programs occasionally fail to complete their task. Many infected files feature cryptic names and hide among hundreds of Windows system files, forcing a reformatting of the hard drive.

   “The best protection is keeping security updates for your software current,” Roiger said. “Keep your operating system current with the most recent service packages. Avoid visiting Web sites that are likely to use such tactics.”  

    Even the most seasoned Internet users fall prey to spyware, due to more corrupt programs constantly in the making. However, by following certain guidelines and taking proper precautions, users can protect not only their computer, but their privacy.  

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