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Spyware: protecting your computer

by Mark Smith, '05

Computer security: In today’s high-tech society, this is a very important topic. With computer viruses and worms dominating technology news, people are updating their virus protection software to guard themselves against such attacks. However, there is a new threat to your computer’s security that is starting to gain media attention: the threat of spyware.

 

For those who are not familiar with spyware, it allows online businesses and advertisers to track your Internet habits so that they can send customized e-mail and pop-up ads to your computer. It can be removed by running any one of several programs. The problem is that you may not even know it is there. Recently, I was performing my bi-weekly computer maintenance, which includes defragmenting my computer’s hard drive, scanning for viruses, and running Ad-Aware, a program which finds and deletes spyware on one’s computer.

I discovered 35 pieces of spyware on my computer, one of which was attached to my registry keys. This meant that somewhere, someone was locked onto my computer and was waiting for me to type credit card numbers and passwords. After deleting the spyware, I ran Ad-Aware again and discovered that it was still there. Fortunately, Ad-Aware showed me where this spyware program was located on my computer and I was able to go to the folder and delete it manually. That night I customized Ad-Aware to scan my computer whenever I rebooted.

The following morning Ad-Aware sent me a message informing that someone had tried to hijack my browser over night. If successful, this person could have used my browser to explore the Internet, allowing them to visit questionable Web sites, perform illegal actions, and to use my accounts for online services such as Amazon.com, to make purchases. These actions of course would all show up under my browser history (not theirs). They could also change my homepage and redirect my browser to visit Web sites of their choice.

Once again, Ad-Aware was able to direct me to the culprit. This time the spy- ware was attached to a toolbar on my browser . . . a toolbar which had mysteriously appeared only a few weeks before after I updated programs on my computer. I was able to delete the toolbar from my files and have not had any problems since.

Some people confuse “cokies” with spyware, although the two are quite different. “Cookies” are dropped onto one’s system whenever you visit a Web site. This allows the Web site to be customized according to the user’s preferences. For example, National Public Radio’s (NPR) Web site uses “cookies” to help determine what audio player a user prefers. Spyware on the other hand is used to send annoying pop-up ads and can also be used to record passwords (www.npr.org).

When it comes to browser hijackers, not all of them have malicious intent. AOL, for example, is well known for hijacking browsers and changing homepages, as well as adding folders containing Web sites they want you to visit when you download any of their software. The changes made by AOL are easily reversible. Other services such as Yahoo! also add folders and files to computers, especially after downloading instant messengers.

The most obvious signs that your computer has been hijacked include new files saved under your favorites list, as well as new homepages that appear, even after they have been removed and the computer has been rebooted.

If you’re browser has been hijacked, a program called Hijack This (available at: http://tomcoyote.com/hjt/) can be download for free and will help you get your browser back. It also offers a walkthrough for first-time users.

To prevent hijacking, spywareinfo.com suggests that computer users drop Microsoft Internet Explorer (MSIE). MSIE is known to have many security flaws which allow hijackers to slip through. Mozilla, Firefox, and Opera are equivelants to MSIE, and because they do not allow access to Windows as MSIE does, and hijackers can’t enter. For various reasons, many people still have to use MSIE. In this case, users should frequent the Microsoft Web site for regular browser updates.

Are HPU computers protected? According to Tom Ku of HPU’s Information Technology Systems, the University has two programs to help protect against spyware. The first is D3, which is used on all lab systems. Whenever a computer in the labs is rebooted, all recent downloads, including spyware, are immediately erased from the computer. System Management Server, a Microsoft product, is used on all faculty and administrative computers. This program allows ITS to monitor all computers on this network, as well as any potentially dangerous downloads.

To protect your computer, there are several spyware programs online to choose from. Ad-Aware and Spybot are the two most popular and are free to download. They offer free updates as well.
For more information on securing your browser from hijackers, visit http://www.spywareinfo.com/articles/hijacked/.

 
 

 

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