Spy/Adware, The New Real Security Problem

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-07-29 Print this article Print

Opinion: Worms and viruses are bad, don't get me wrong. But they're pretty much under control for anyone who is willing to put a little money and effort into security. But spyware and especially adware are menace to anyone with teenagers.

Like many of you, I spend many a visit to family and friends attempting to fix their computer problems. The No. 1 problem scenario these days involves spyware and adware, often so much of it that the computer is utterly unusable. An infected system is a sad sight. You cant do anything without windows popping up and interfering with your work, assuming the computer is responsive at all. Ive seen a couple that wouldnt even finish booting.

Cleaning up such systems is a business staple for Steven Brier of Brier IT Services. "I had a client yesterday with 13 different search help tools and another seven comparison shopping programs competing for her attention. The popup windows would see terms in other popup windows, spawning yet more popup windows to offer yet better deals. The computer was unusable."

For insights on security coverage around the Web, check out eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.
All too often Brier sees the cause of such problems. Unlike viruses, which attempt to sneak in under the radar, spyware and adware are invited in the front door. Briers advice: "If your kids—or you—want to install some software because its supposed to help you, dont do it. Get up, walk around, count to 10, and get over it."

There are a large number of programs to detect and remove the much larger number of attacks. As PC Magazine found in its most recent roundup, none of them does a really good job of cleaning up this software. Since some of the best ones are free (asking for donations) it may be a good idea to run more than one; personally I boot into safe mode, go into regedit and manually clip the wires of these little bombs.

How can spyware and adware be such a festering problem when worms and viruses are comparatively under control? Why do the major security software companies emphasize the classic viruses and worms and largely ignore spyware and adware, leaving it to a bunch of little guys and volunteer efforts? The problem is a challenging one to the software industry.

Next page: Virus authors with commercial funding.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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