Spy/Adware, The New Real Security Problem

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."

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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.