Spyware, adware and unaware

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Spyware is public enemy number one. Web advertising networks are strongly lobbying to make sure that the anti-Spyware bill known as the Spy Act is watered down a bit before passage (Bill H.R. 29).

These tenacious Washington insiders are concerned that the law as written could restrict their ability to do their job – that is, to infiltrate corporate computer networks, to reduce employee productivity and to slow down corporate networks.

These same lobbyists won a victory by stalling similar legislation in the Senate last year. But, let's not feel too sorry for these lobbyists.

It reaches far beyond politics into the financial and security resources of small and large corporate networks alike. Recent surveys of IT managers around the world have identified spyware as the number one threat faced by corporate security managers. A survey last year by internet service provider Earthlink found that 90 percent of computers in the U.S. are infested with some sort of spyware. On average, each machine in the survey harbored 28 separate spyware programs.

Spyware, adware, malware? Unaware.

Unless you have lived in a cave for the past two years, you have been the victim of spyware at one point. But, corporations and government institutions are not always aware of the negative fiscal impact, decrease in productivity, and heightened security risk to the company when spyware is allowed to infiltrate the enterprise.

In Oklahoma City in February 2005, the FBI was called to investigate the installation of surveillance software on all the computers at the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office – allowing access to homeland security issues, personnel files and prisoner information. The same week, a Sheriff's Office in Kentucky found similar spyware on its system. These incidents serve as a microcosm of how accessible such important and sensitive data can be to outside intruders.

You say potato

Spyware is often used as a broad term. It is important to point out that there are really three types of applications that fall under the generic term spyware. Let's take a look at the three main categories of intruder:

Whether it's spyware, adware or malware, it is just plain dangerous and costly. Corporate enterprise managers are understandably concerned. Let's take a look at some of the different breeds that live and thrive in our computers.

Spyware is application that loads onto the PC – generally through a non-threatening application such as a screen saver or helper application. This application will collect information about the computer, the user's surfing habits and sometimes far more sensitive data such as keyboard logging. This information will be sent to a data collection facility in the Internet heavens.

Spyware is an executable program with a single objective: to secretly monitor a computer and surreptitiously report information on activity to anyone willing to pay for it. It is an ideal tool for corrupting or stealing the sensitive business data residing on corporate PCs and systems. Spyware can also degrade performance, reduce employee productivity, and impose extensive administrative expenses.

Adware will monitor the surfing habits of a user, and present advertising or pop-up pages in relation to what the user is surfing. For example, user goes to expedia.com; the adware will detect this and throw up a few pop-ups related to travel sites.

Malware and malicious code is code within a web page that seeks to do damage to the user's computer or infect the user's computer with a virus or other software application. No wonder IT managers around the world identify this breed of threat as the most dynamic and threatening technology to corporate enterprise in 2005. A good rule of thumb – never download it.

The Gremlin effect

This refers to the fact that individuals, at some point, choose to break the rules and invite seemingly innocuous code into the network. It is initially a human problem, not a technology problem.

Follow the rules and nobody gets hurt. But, employees will continue to visit chat rooms and download screen savers and other files. These are indeed invited guests into the corporate network.

Remember the movie Gremlins? It was the 1980s classic about those furry little creatures that turned from one cute critter to an ill-behaved, hell-raising mob. The only rule given to its master was "don't feed him after midnight" and "never give him water." Of course, like many day-to-day computer users in the workplace, the simplest rules are broken and chaos ensues within the organization: Gremlin code is invited into the computer by employees to take over large parts of the network. Things very quickly get out of control and without the Hollywood ending.

'Operation Flytrap'

There is no single solution for fighting spyware and the most effective defense is a combination of user education and technology safety net.

The next step

Spyware, malware, adware - and other web-based threats - are growing in number, complexity, and cost to organizations daily. Users must treat the internet like a stray animal - who knows if it is friendly or if it will bite? In any case, administrators need to canvass the importance of staying away from suspicious downloads and other services that seem too good to be true. The best way to reinforce this urgency? By implementing a sound and effective internet filtering and reporting system that makes an IT administrator know when a user's computer is infected, and allows him or her to stop even the most prolific malware agents from infiltrating an organization's network.

The author is president of 8e6 Technologies

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