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University Computing Services

Spyware/Adware FAQ

What is spyware?

Spyware is software that collects information from your computer and sends it secretly to someone else. Sometimes spyware conceals itself and runs secretly in the background, and sometimes it is a secret "feature" of an otherwise useful or interesting program.

 

What is adware?

Adware is software designed to show you advertisements. As with spyware, adware may hide on your system or it may be part of another program. These days, most spyware is also adware, so we will talk about them together here.

 

What is the purpose of spyware?

Most spyware programs are created by advertising or data mining companies, and are designed to collect information such as what websites you visit, what programs are installed on your computer, and so forth. Other spyware is created by Internet criminals and tries to collect passwords, credit card numbers, etc.

 

Why is spyware so bad?

Aside from the obvious fact that it compromises your privacy, spyware also slows down your computer and network connection, and often causes your computer to act strangely or even crash. Some spyware also collects email addresses for spamming purposes.

 

How does spyware get onto my computer?

If you use Internet Explorer, you are vulnerable to certain tricks that can be programmed into web pages. Some of these tricks allow software to be installed onto your computer without your knowledge, or possibly after showing you a deceptive message and asking you to press a button. Other spyware is installed by viruses such as Klez. However, the vast majority of spyware comes from "free" software that users download and install on their computers. Those cute browser helpers, photo screen savers, or weather report programs often contain secret components that report back to the company, as well as displaying advertisements.

 

What programs are known to contain spyware?

The most common spyware- and/or adware-containing programs found by UCS on campus include:

  • Alexa, a browser toolbar that also tracks what sites you visit
  • Bonzi Buddy, which puts a purple gorilla "buddy" into your browser, but tracks every website you visit, including what you type into search engines.
  • Comet Cursor, which changes your mouse cursor when you visit certain websites, but tracks all usage of those sites. It also takes up a lot of resources on your computer.
  • The Gator, which remembers data you fill out in web forms, and shows ads.
  • Hotbar, which adds graphics to Internet Explorer, but also tracks websites you visit.
  • IWon Prize Machine (AKA "IWON Plus"), a program from the contest site IWon.com; it and everything else from that site contains spyware, some of which is very difficult to remove.
  • Kazaa, a file-sharing program that contains several spyware and adware components.
  • MySearch, a browser search toolbar.

Note that most browser toolbars, file sharing programs, download managers, and so forth contain spyware of some sort. If you are in doubt, search the Internet for the name of the program and the word "spyware"; that will likely tell you if the product has any known spyware components. Whenever you are offered something for free, ask yourself "What's the catch?"There almost always is one.

 

How can I tell if I have any spyware on my computer?

If you have downloaded any programs on your computer and you think they might have spyware, call the UCS help desk at extension 88925 or email them at ucshelpdesk@wou.edu to get a tech sent over to check out your machine. If you notice unusual network slowness but other people in your department don't see a problem, this might be a symptom of spyware. You can also download and run a spyware detector.

 

How do I get a spyware detector?

Many anti-spyware programs advertised on the Net, and especially those advertised in spam, are unreliable. Some of them even contain spyware! However, UCS has tested two products and found them both to work well; the best part is, they are free! Both are written by people who hate spyware and want to see it go away, and aren't just trying to make a buck off of the problem.

 

OK, so what are they?

The first is Ad-Aware, which you can get at "http://www.lavasoftusa.com/". There are three versions of the program; be sure to get the free one. It is simple but effective, and is the anti-spyware tool I use on my own computers. The most important thing to remember about Ad-Aware is that you need to update it, just like you update an antivirus program; however, the free version doesn't do this automatically, so you need to click the link in the program to "Check for Updates Now" before you run it.

 

The second is Spybot, which you can get at "http://www.safer-networking.org/". It is a bit more complicated than Ad-Aware, but it does automatically update itself. I have much less experience with it personally, but several of the techs in UCS swear by it.

 

I want to download a search toolbar for my browser. Are any of them safe?

Almost all downloadable web toolbars (even including the one from eBay) contain spyware of one sort or another. However, the Google search bar and the Yahoo toolbar are known to be spyware-free. If you want either of these, please contact the UCS help desk to get a tech to help you install it.

 

I had an advertising message pop up on my screen even when my browser wasn't open! What do I do?

There are two common reasons for this. One is a bug in Windows Messenger (which is not the same thing as the Instant Messaging program MSN Messenger) which allows people with special software to make messages pop up on your computer screen. These messages appear in the middle of your screen and use the same font and background color (usually gray) as normal Windows popup boxes, and they also have an OK button at the bottom. If you see one of these, print your screen and then hit OK; this type is just a message and doesn't hurt your computer. You should still call the help desk to get the Windows Messenger turned off. The other of the two causes is much more dangerous; the advertisement may mean that there is spyware already installed on your computer. You should never follow any instructions given by such an ad, or press any buttons in it; call the help desk immediately and leave the advertisement window open until a tech arrives.

 

I went to a website and all these popup ads started appearing. Every time I close one, more show up! Is this spyware, or is my computer possessed?

This sort of tactic isn't spyware per se, but a malicious use of poorly designed features in your web browser. If you know how to turn javascript off in your browser, do that, and then you should be able to close all the popup windows; if you aren't sure how to do that, call the help desk and wait for a tech to arrive.

 

Every time I start my browser I get sent to an advertising page! Help?

Your browser has been "hijacked". This is another trick that takes advantage of bugs in Internet Explorer; certain web pages can change your browser settings without telling you. This may also be a symptom of spyware installed on your computer. Call the help desk to get this fixed.

 

I got an email that my computer was infected with spyware! What should I do?

Ignore it. Since spyware is becoming more well-known, some spam companies are advertising software to remove spyware from your computer. You might see these ads on web pages or in your email. These ads are usually designed to provoke fear and paranoia, and the products they advertise are usually substandard and may even contain spyware themselves!

 

Is spyware legal?

Currently, there are no laws against it, though a bill has been proposed in Congress by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, among others. (Wyden was also one of the sponsors of the CAN-SPAM act mentioned in the previous FAQ.)This bill is known as the SPYBLOCK (Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge) Act, and requires that there be clear notification before spyware is installed from a website or another program, that spyware be easy to remove via normal software uninstallation processes, and include a link to uninstallation instructions. Most spyware companies claim that their actions are legal because they have fine print buried in their license agreements that says something like "By using this software, you agree to allow us to collect usage data."Of course, hardly anybody ever reads those agreements all the way through, so this is still a deceptive practice even though it is technically legal (and probably would continue to be legal even if the SPYBLOCK bill is passed.)

 

Where can I get more information?

General information about spyware and adware, including a list of most known types:

http://www.spywareinfo.com/

PCWorld magazine article on the SPYBLOCK act:

http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,114999,00.asp

 

Contact

University Computing Services 503-838-8154 | or e-mail: webmaster@wou.edu

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