I’ve said before that I don’t have the tech chops to get into an extremely detailed description of computer security issues, but I think its important to at least understand the basics. The minutiae of VBS or C+ programming doesn’t matter for our purposes here much as the following facts:
- There is a lot of malicious software out there
- It is important to know how to recognize it and how to avoid it
- It is important to keep your security software updated, and to make sure it is legitimate software from a trusted source
Let’s dive right in. Warning: this is one of my longer posts.
Malware: This is sort of an “umbrella term” for software intended to harm your computer. It includes (but is not limited to) spyware, misleading adware, viruses, worms and trojan horses.
Spyware: This is a term for software that, in some form, sends information from your computer to another entity without your consent. This information can be anything from words typed into search engines (Google, e.g.), websites visited or even keystrokes. Spyware can pose a serious identity theft risk, as it can relay financial account information (account numbers and passwords) to a third party.
Adware: Adware is software that displays advertising in some form. Not all adware is necessarily malicious (the free version of the Eudora email client contains benign adware), but sometimes it is. Often, spyware and adware are bundled together.
How Spyware and Adware Infect Your Computer
Some spyware is intentional. Some companies install keyloggers on their computers to keep tabs on employee computer use. I’m just guessing, but I’ll bet every letter you type into an FBI computer is logged.
However, the spyware I’m talking about is the kind that installs itself on your computer without your knowledge or consent. These programs can install through a variety of channels. Some of them are:
Backdoor: These programs exploit “holes” in your web browser or computer’s security features. You can become infected simply by visiting a website that has been set up to install malware, and you probably won’t even know it at the time.
Piggybacking: Sometimes software you want is bundled with software you might not want. Adware often shows up in this form, but other malware uses this method as well. I mentioned the free Eudora email client earlier. This is pretty benign adware—in return for not paying for the full version of the software, you put up with some banner ads, from which the software company earns revenue. However, you’ve also got examples like Bonzi Buddy, which was designed to appeal to children (and secretly send information about their web browsing habits to a third party). Bad scene.
Trojan Horses: A trojan horse is software that poses as useful or desirable software, but is actually spyware, adware or other malware. Some of the most common examples right now are Fake Virus Scan Pop-Ups, which I talked about a couple weeks ago. While visiting a website, a window pops up with a frantic message telling you that your computer is infected with a virus, and to click “OK” to run a scan now. This downloads software, some of which may actually even look like a real virus scanner, that can wreak havoc on your computer, to say nothing of the financial threat it could pose if it contains some really nasty spyware. I want to touch on a few examples of trojan horse software here:
MS Antivirus: This is a fake virus scanner that can disable your real antivirus and anti-spyware programs. Other than that, it’s mostly just annoying, but turning off your security software opens the door to all kinds of other infections. MS Antivirus goes by about a million different names, and it is constantly being updated to evade detection by legitimate security software, which just illustrates the importance of keeping your antivirus software updated. Pay for the subscription. It is worth it.
No-Adware: This was a trojan horse designed to confuse you with a name similar to Ad-Aware, which is a legitimate product. No-Adware is supposedly no longer considered “rogue” software, but you know what? I still haven’t forgiven them.
Tattoodle: This is an application that usually gets installed (intentionally) through Facebook. I don’t know yet if it’s malicious or just annoying, but I don’t think I care: it changes your browser’s homepage, makes itself difficult to remove and its logo is designed to make you think it’s related to Google. If it looks like malware and acts like malware, I call it malware. Just my opinion.
What To Do About Spyware and Adware
Sometimes spyware doesn’t have a whole lot of symptoms. A sudden increase in popup advertisements, constant frantic popups that claim your computer is infected, or just a sudden decrease in system performance can all be signs of a malware infection. I suppose having your identity or financial account information stolen could also be signs, but we’re not going to let it get to that point, are we?
First and foremost, it is of vital importance to install good antivirus and anti-spyware software, and to keep this software updated, even if that means paying for a subscription every year. Second and also foremost, it is vital to make sure this software is the real thing. Here are what I think of as the “Big Three” real, actual, non-malware computer security programs, along with some other software:
Norton: This is what I use. It currently comes in three versions for home users—AntiVirus, Internet Security, and 360, which range in price from $39.99 to $69.99 (although I’m pretty sure 360 is normally $79.99). As with all security software, you also have to subscribe to the updates every year, but it is well worth it.
McAfee: The Pepsi to Norton’s Coke, McAfee is another good one. It’s not my favorite, but I think that has to do more with the look and feel of the software than its actual functionality. As of this writing, its home computer versions range from $29.99 to $39.99, so it’s definitely more of a “budget” option. It works fine, though.
Kaspersky: This one actually originates from Russia. It is excellent antivirus software, and I’m pretty sure at one point years ago it was absolutely free to download and update. Alas, you have to pay for it now; prices are similar to Norton, ranging from $39.95 to $79.95.
Spybot Search & Destroy: This is free software that I highly recommend. It is not a replacement for any of the three antivirus softwares above, as it only concentrates on spyware and adware, but it is a great little backup program to have on hand. You’d be surprised how much potentially harmful stuff slips past your antivirus software. Beware of trojan horses with similar names—only get it from the website I’ve linked here.
Ad-Aware: This is similar to Spybot Search & Destroy. There is a free version still available, but you can also buy software from their site. To be honest, I haven’t used this one in a long time. Again, beware of imitators.
One final word on avoidance: I think there are certain types of websites that tend to contain more malware than others. You’re mostly safe when it comes to the giant corporate sites like Amazon, but I would never suggest you stick only to huge corporate sites. You miss out on the whole democratic, DIY side of the Internet if you do that.
However, any time you’re viewing sites that offer pirated software, movies or music, or sites that appeal to the…ahem…prurient interests, you’re going to run into a lot more malware, especially in the form of trojan horses, than you might otherwise. So my advice is to go forth and browse, have fun and don’t be afraid to venture outside the “mall,” but try to avoid the seedy side of town.