Protecting Myself from Spyware and Adware

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"What are all these windows open on my screen?” a campus administrator asked me recently. Unfortunately, windows were appearing on her personal laptop's screen at an alarming rate. She had Adware! Adware sometimes causes advertising banners to appear on your screen in multiple, cascading windows that can appear so quickly that you are unable to use your computer for anything else. Furthermore, when doing a search, advertisements could appear everywhere on your computer. They are pernicious and invasive. And then there are Spybots, which are no fun either. These can be used to collect the keystrokes you make--consider how dangerous this is when typing in sensitive information such as social security numbers or critical passwords--and send them on to others.

Although we came to the brink of reformatting--wiping her hard drive of data and starting over--we were finally able to install the right combination of software to prevent spyware/adware software from taking over her computer. The software programs listed below are all free for individual use. I encourage you to take these steps to immediately protect your computer. If you are undergoing a spyware attack, start with Step 2; this will prevent pop-ups from overwhelming you as you try to take care of the problem. They include the following:

  1. Update your Windows Operating System . You can do this by pointing your Internet Explorer browser to “Protect Your PC” (http://www.microsoft.com/security/protect/default.asp)
    This Web site will allow you to get (download) the latest updates for your particular operating system.
  2. Install an Internet Monitoring or Firewall program such as Zone Lab's ZoneAlarm (http://www.zonelabs.com/store/content/catalog/products/sku_list_za.jsp), Kerio's Personal Firewall (http://www.kerio.com/us/kpf_home.html) or Agnitum's Outpost Firewall Free (http://www.agnitum.com/download/outpost1.html). A firewall program essentially monitors and restricts incoming and outgoing Internet use. It allows you to see how the Internet is being accessed on your computer. After a few alerts, you are able to identify which program is trying to access the Internet and deduce why. The program can be taught to remember which programs to allow, and which to bar. ZoneAlarm is a free download and includes a short tutorial/wizard to help you configure it. The first few uses of the Internet will require your permission, but you will actually be able to prevent your computer from sending out unauthorized spyware connections. This is important since an unauthorized spyware could further install other software on your computer.

If you do not want a firewall, but still want to know what programs on your computer require Internet access, you can install a monitoring program. For Macintosh computers, you can download BrickHouse (http://personalpages.tds.net/%7Ebrian_hill/brickhouse.html) or Little Snitch (http://www.obdev.at/products/littlesnitch/download.html) While both are shareware ($25), BrickHouse allows you unlimited use as opposed to Little Snitch which allows only three hours of use before you have to pay. Both will allow you to monitor incoming/outgoing traffic on your Mac. Although Macs, as of 11/26/2004, are immune to spyware, these two products will help you keep track of applications that communicate with the software manufacturer via the Internet.

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