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Spyware: What is it and how do I protect my computer against it?

Malware, an acronym of malicious software, is a generic term used to describe any undesirable software, or code that invades a computer with or without the owners consent. Now, Im not talking about the normal bugs that are routinely found in many legitimate pieces of software. Im talking about software that meets a key condition: it was created with malicious intent. In this column I want to discuss one of the common categories of malware that all computer users should be aware of spyware. Anyone who regularly surfs the World Wide Web should have a basic understanding of spyware and some of the techniques designed to prevent the potential threat. Spyware is a vast category of malware. So vast in fact, books have been written on the subject. The term covers all code that is designed to conduct the seemingly harmless activity of simply targeting advertisements by spying on your surfing habits all the way to the harmful code designed to collect all the information entered on the keyboard. The targeting of advertisements based on surfing habits may not be malicious but the harvesting of personal information such as usernames, passwords, bank account numbers and credit card numbers certainly is. We often get the less-harmful varieties of spyware by intentionally downloading it. How many users actually read the licensing agreement that typically appears during an installation? Many users swiftly provide the required click to advance through the screen and never read the agreement. The amazing thing is a large number of spyware distributors inform users in the licensing agreement that information shall be collected. Another way of getting spyware is through deception, which often occurs when users unknowingly download it when downloading something else. Spyware also enters the system is through operating system or Web browser vulnerabilities. Internet Explorer, the most widely used Web browser is, not surprisingly, also the most attacked Web browser. Here are some tips to help combat the ever-present threat of spyware. First, know what youre up against. Knowledge about the subject is the best starting point of a good defense. I encourage everyone to review the information on spyware at www.wikipedia.org . Another tip is to install and use an anti-spyware program if you are not already doing so. There are some good free ones available such as Ad-Aware 2007 that can be found at lavasoftusa.com . Keeping your Web browser up to date is another highly recommended practice. The easiest way to do so is to allow the Windows update service to perform the service automatically. Experienced users can opt for a non-Microsoft product by switching to a different browser such as Mozillas Firefox. And, as mentioned above, when installing software, especially shareware/freeware, read through the licensing agreement to see what youre agreeing to. My final tip is simple surf smartly. Only visit sites of businesses or organizations that are legitimate and avoid ones that are not. My experience has been the worst infections are caused by going to the worst Web sites.

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