Spyware & Adware
In 2003, the proliferation of “spyware” and “adware” (sometimes together, with viruses, called “malware”) became the latest negative part of the lives of Internet users. These software programs are employed by hackers and dubious entrepreneurs to spy on Internet users computing activities for equally dubious activities.
Spyware is unintentionally downloaded software that monitors an Internet user’s computing activities. Spyware can be used by hackers to steal sensitive information, such as Social Security and credit card numbers, or it can be used by companies to gather information about customers.
Although not as invasive as spyware, adware often goes beyond accepted e-commerce practices to gather information about Internet activities in order to target users with online advertising, such as spam and pop-up advertisement windows.
Spyware and adware practices are considered unethical because, it addition to the obvious privacy concerns, it can cause software on infected computers to malfunction. Often, the web browsers themselves are the targets.
Adware can cause computer screens to be flooded with ad pop-up windows and other unexpected changes, such as home pages being deleted in favor of a questionable website and website listings mysteriously appearing on Favorites lists. Often, the user’s e-mail account will see an unexplainable spike in spam messages and messages sent without the user’s knowledge, meaning the account is being used to further spam proliferation.
Even more serious, infected computers, whether they are offline or online, can behave erratically or run slowly when infected with adware or spyware. Sometimes, software programs open and close slowly or randomly, or a computer’s hard drive will be at work grinding away when the computer is idle. These may be signs of “keyboard loggers,” malicious programs that allow hackers to monitor keystrokes and capture sensitive information, such as usernames and passwords.
How bad is the problem? Microsoft claims that half of all computers crashes reported by customers are related to adware and spyware.
The problem with spyware is that it is hard for an Internet user to detect it. However, spyware and adware prevention has become an important consideration, as many Internet service providers (ISPs) including America Online (http://www.aol.com) and EarthLink (http://www.earthlink.net), among others, provide spyware and adware protection for free to their subscribers.
Third-party spyware and adware blocking software is also useful, with the most popular titles including Spybot (http://www.safer-networking.org/en/spybotsd/index.html), Ad-Aware (http://www.lavasoftusa.com/software/adaware) and PestPatrol (http://www.ca.com/products/pestpatrol).
Spyware and adware programs try to infect users’ computers without their knowledge. One tactic is to prey on users’ ignorance by bundling their programs with free software that users download from the Internet. No one would intentionally download these programs, so the spyware or adware is bundled with a free, useful program. This practice is rife in file-sharing programs, the backbone of many music-swapping applications.
Here’s how the scheme typically works. Free software is downloaded, and an End User License Agreement (EULA) appears in a dialog box. Often, this is lengthy and convoluted legalese that must be agreed to by clicking the dialog box’s “Agree” button to begin the downloading process. Many, if not most, users will skip over the legal mumbo-jumbo and click the “Agree” button without fully reading the EULA.
rs should be aware of warning phases in EULAs that may signal the presence of spyware and adware, such as “we may make your information available to third parties” and “you agree to allow third-party software to be installed into your computer.”
This EULA verbiage can give the company permission to include the spyware or adware along with the free program. This “permission tactic” lends legal legitimacy to the practice, but the reality is that few users will read or understand the ramifications of the EULA.
A more sinister technique includes sending spam with an executable file (a file with an .EXE extension) attached. When the user double-clicks it, adware or spyware is unleashed. Another alarming technique is when malicious software code is embedded into a user’s web browser when he or she simply visits a website or clicks a pop-up ad window. Many hackers use these techniques to exploit security holes in older versions of the Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser.
As an Internet businessperson, you need to be aware of adware and spyware. Not only must you protect your own Internet activities from this malicious software, you should realize that its use is considered an unethical practice that can damage your company’s reputation and expose your company to litigation risks.
While many computer viruses are mere nuisances that cause a handful of minor problems, “successful” computer viruses often make news headlines worldwide because of the havoc some of them create on the world’s computer networks. Many of the most damaging viruses are called “worms,” such as 2001’s “Code Red” as well as “Slammer,” a particularly clever and ruthless worm that, for all practical purposes, crashed the entire Internet 15 minutes after it was launched on January 25, 2003.
As an Internet businessperson, you need to aware of what viruses are and how to protect them from infecting your personal computers and networks. A widespread virus can cause Internet business millions in lost revenues, computing downtime, destroyed data, and wasted manpower as employees can’t use their computers to work and wages must be paid to computer security experts to clean up after the virus.
Here’s a look at how viruses work and the most common ones you’re likely to encounter.
Viruses. The word “computer virus” has become a kind of catchall term for any type of maliciously constructed computer code that can attack computers. But specifically, a virus is actually a small computer program, designed to intentionally cause some aspect of a computer to malfunction, which comes imbedded in a larger software program or within a single file.
This process involves inserting the virus code into the larger program’s overall code. When a program such as a word processor or spreadsheet, for example, is launched, the virus code is deployed as well, carrying out instructions written by its author to replicate itself and possibly damage data.
A computer virus gets its name because it behaves like a biological virus: it replicates itself and infects other computers it comes into contact with. But unlike biological viruses, computer viruses are always man-made, never created by a malfunctioning computer or program.
Many basics viruses are shockingly simple to create, and do little more than replicate themselves across many computers on a network. It’s unusual for simple viruses to cause serious damage to data, but they can quickly gobble up network resources, grinding a computer network to a halt until the viruses can be removed.
Early 1980’s forms of viruses, such as boot sector viruses, are practically nonexistent today. These viruses were usually spread by exchanging diskettes, which have been replaced as a storage device by compact discs (CDs) and digital video discs (DVDs), which are highly secure.
Instead, the most-common viruses today are spread as attachments to e-mail messages, tricking the message recipient into double-clicking an executable file (which has an often-hidden .EXE extension). This launches the virus on the computer and then replicates by sending a copy of itself and the message to other e-mail addresses found in the address book of the recipient’s e-mail client software.
Most viruses spread by e-mail cause little real damage, but there are exceptions. The so-called “Melissa” virus closed down the e-mail servers of many large companies, including Microsoft whose Microsoft Word the virus exploited to spread itself.
Melissa was included in a Word document uploaded to an Internet newsgroup. Newsgroup visitors, thinking the document was useful, double-clicked it to open it, launching the virus that was sent to the first 50 listings in their address book of their e-mail client. Recipients received an e-mail message, often with their first name in the subject line (gleaned from the address book), tricking them into opening it.
Worms. The term “worm” is usually lumped in with the viruses, although there are some important distinctions. A worm, just like a virus, attaches itself to a program or file. But unlike a virus, a worm is designed to travel across computer networks, using Internet protocols without any participation by computer users. The virus’s intention is to replicate itself so quickly that it slows down a network or crashes it. Worms exploited security holes in networks, traveling around one or more networks until its code finds a way to penetrate security measures and reach computers.
The most-notorious worm is Slammer, which just three minutes after it was launched was doubling its numbers every 8.5 seconds as it clogged and shut down computer networks worldwide. Another recent worm, “Blaster,” is design to infect computers so others can remotely control their operation.
Trojan horses. A Trojan house is like a virus in that it is hidden within a larger, useful software program. That’s why it borrows its name from Greek history: You think you are getting something desirable until it opens and you find out something is trying to attack your computer. Unlike a virus or a worm, a Trojan horse cannot replicate itself. Its purpose is to attack a single computer at a time.
Trojan horses are often found on websites, disguised as a free software download for something useful or fun, like a utility or a game. One well-known Trojan horse, in the ultimate irony, masqueraded as a program for anti-virus protection.
Once downloaded, a Trojan horse can damage data, even erasing a hard drive. Some Trojans even create a way for user to gain control of individual computers.
Macro viruses. A macro virus exploits a feature in software programs, especially word processors and spreadsheets, called a macro. Macros enable users of these programs to record and save a set of keystrokes (usually tedious, often-repeated tasks) that are employed when an assigned shortcut is typed by the user.
When a file containing a macro virus is launched, the virus launches a macro programmed by the author. This usually causes the file to perform fairly harmless buy annoying tasks, such as inserting funny or obscene text when a certain key or key combination is typed.
Macro viruses, like the Melissa virus discussed earlier, are typically spread as attachments to e-mail messages.
Virus prevention. All the talk about viruses and their counterparts shutting down networks, allowing hackers to steal personal information and erasing hard drives can be scary stuff. And, sometimes, it is. But there are many ways you can guard yourself from the vast majority of viruses and their variants, ranging from some commonsense, defensive computing practices to installing software protection.
· Be wary of file attachments. The easiest way to stop many viruses is simply to be careful with e-mail, Internet communications, and downloading files. Since
many viruses are spread by e-mail, it’s a good idea to never open file attachments from people or companies you don’t know or aren’t expecting.
Executable files (with an .EXE extension) and Visual Basic files (with a .VBS extension) are particularly suspect, as these are common platforms for delivering viruses, worms and macro viruses.
· Safe downloads. Viruses and, especially, Trojan horses make their way unto computer systems when computer users download questionable software programs. To prevent these attacks, only download files from websites that you are confident are reliable. Also, if you install software from only CDs, the risk of virus infection is miniscule.
· Antivirus software and firewalls. Installing antivirus software and firewalls on personal computers as well as computer networks has done an increasingly good job over the years at stopping virus attacks. Antivirus software blocks viruses, Trojan horses, macro viruses and other variants from attacking computers.
A firewall is a set of programs that protects a network from access outside the network, and the most-popular antivirus software and firewalls titles come from Symantec (www.symantec.com) and McAfee (www.mcafee.com/us).
McAfee’s Internet Security Suite 2005 and Symantic’s Norton WinAntiVirus PRO 2005 are both security suites with software for antivirus and firewall protection as well as protection from pop-ups, spyware and adware. Another popular option, if you use Windows XP, is Microsoft’s Windows Firewall as part of its Service Pack 2 for the XP operating system (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/security/internet/sp2_wfintro.mspx).