Sep 7

Submitted by: John Tenn

Malware (short for malicious software) is the term used to describe any program designed to do harm. Though the definition of harm may depend on individual perspective, most users agree that viruses, Trojans, and worms are all forms of malware. Some people even include spam in that category, claiming that junk mail causes harm. The two newest forms of malware to hit the Internet are adware and spyware.

What is Adware?

There are two different kinds of adware on the market today; one is fairly legitimate, the other fairly malicious. The first kind, the more legitimate one, is advertiser-supported software. Though the user may get the useful utility software for free, it comes with advertisements to generate revenue to support further development. Usually this kind of software is available in an ad-free form for a modest cost. The system is very similar to television- network TV is available for free because it is subsidized by the revenue from commercials.

The second kind of adware is more malicious, monitoring your browsing habits and delivering targeted advertising. Many consider this kind of adware spyware if it is installed without your consent or knowledge.

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The line between adware and spyware is a fine one, but many software vendors argue that if full disclosure is made in the fine print of the user agreement, legal consent for installation is granted by the user. Users (most of while rarely take the time to read the long and jargon-filled user agreements) tend to disagree.

What is Spyware?

Spyware refers to those insidious programs that track your browsing habits and even redirect your browser to selected websites. It is almost always installed without the knowledge or consent of the user, often hidden inside another program or as the payload of a virus or worm.

Hidden spyware is illegal in many countries, including in the US, where the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has indicted and convicted several purveyors of spyware.

Some programs require users to install spyware as a part of the installation process. Kazaa and BearShare (two file sharing utilities) are notorious for this practice. The user agreement for these two programs does spell-out the fact that spyware is included, but there is no spyware-free version of these programs available. Users who want those utilities must agree to the installation of spyware, a legal practice that most users nonetheless consider unethical.

Once installed, the spyware gathers information about the web-browsing habits of the user. This information is analyzed, and the analysis used to deliver targeted advertising to the user. Spyware vendors argue that they gather demographic information rather than specific personal information (like names, addresses, etc) so they are engaged in legitimate market analysis rather than privacy violation.

Advertisers claim that targeted ads are the best way to reach potential clients who might actually be interested in purchasing their products. Some go so far as to claim it falls under the protection of the Constitution because it is a form of free speech.

Despite this argument by the vendors, most users consider spyware annoying and intrusive. Users counter that the free speech of the advertisers should not infringe their right to privacy, and has no place on the browsers and in the inboxes of the uninterested.

Though new forms of adware and spyware are constantly being released, there are legislative efforts afoot to counter this menace. In the meantime, use a browser that blocks pop-ups and a spyware-checker that detects and deletes spyware to keep your private computing private.

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