Spyware, also called adware, is software hidden on a computer that gathers personal information and transfers it to an outside source. Computers whose users spend any time on the Internet -- surfing the web, checking email, using instant messaging, etc. -- are susceptible to picking up spyware, which can pose a serious computing security threat.

What Spyware Does

  • Software companies use spyware to gather data about individuals and their Internet use
    • Spyware can transmit this information (often without permission) to advertisers and other 3rd parties
    • These groups use the information to target the user's computer with advertisements, SPAM, and pop-up ads
    • Sometimes this is done with "cookies," the receipts left on a user's machine that keep a record of websites visited
  • Runs in the background; often hidden and difficult to remove
  • Can slow the computer to less than peak performance
  • Can leave the computer unstable or unusable
  • Can be a remote control program used by a hacker
  • Can be used to steal IDs and passwords
  • Can steal credit card or banking information
  • The most common cause of pervasive pop-up windows

Indications That Spyware Is On A Computer

  • Computer slows down or "hangs"
  • Home page changes
  • Computer experiences slow network or Internet performance when others' Internet connectivity is not affected
  • When typing an address in the browser (such as www.google.com) the URL resolves to a different search site
  • New toolbars appear in the browser
  • The number of "pop-up" ads increases, especially on sites where no pop-up ads are generated (such as google.com or emory.edu)
  • Pop-up ads appear when not surfing the Internet

How Spyware is Acquired

  • Is installed on a computer typically without the user's knowledge or consent
  • Can be a hidden component in freeware or shareware programs that are downloaded from the Internet, though not all shareware and freeware applications do not come with spyware
    • The licensing agreement that is displayed when freeware or shareware is installed may indicate that monitoring software (spyware) is being installed
    • Software downloaded from Peer-to-Peer networks, such as KaZaa, Morpheus, Limewire, Gnutella, Soulseek, etc., can be a source for unknowingly picking up spyware or viruses
  • Can also be installed when the user clicks on links in email messages or on web page ads
  • Can take advantage of security holes in various browsers to install spyware
    • Programs that take advantage of these flaws are often "browser hijackers"
    • Can change the browser home page or re-direct Internet searches to other sites, no matter how many times the user changes the settings back to their preferences.

Steps For Prevention and Removal

  • Make sure computer operating systems have been updated with the most recent security patches
  • Run spyware scanning and removal utilities on a regular basis
    • Removes "cookies" that accumulate in the course of normal Internet use
    • Identifies and removes the most common spyware processes currently in use on the Interne
  • Download and install free or shareware software only from trusted Internet sites
  • Avoid software from Peer-to-Peer networks
  • If a popup appears asking you to install software while surfing the Internet, decline unless it is from a trusted source
  • Avoid surfing sites where spyware installers do business; many of these sites plant spyware or adware
    • Illegal software sites
    • Adult sites
    • Sites about hacking or cracking
  • Use personal firewall software on your computer in addition to antivirus software

Recommended Program to Identify and Remove Spyware from PCs (Mac Spyware removal is not currently available through LITS resources)

This program is free and easy to use: