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How Advertisers Gain Access to Your Computer

How Advertisers Gain Access to Your Computer
 Technology with Integrity

By Tim Torian, Torian Group, Inc.


“AdWare” and “SpyWare” are becoming a significant problem for our client’s computers, and may be affecting your computer.  The most obvious symptom that your computer is infected is web popups from advertisers, sometimes even when you are not connected to the internet. Not every popup window is an indication of AdWare. Web sites often have windows that pop up when you open or close the site, or click on something. This is a different issue, also sometimes annoying. There are programs that detect and disable this type of popup as well.

AdWare and SpyWare are programs that are installed, usually without your knowledge, as part of some other useful software. SpyWare is software that sends information about what you are doing to someone without your knowledge or consent– what web sites you visit, even what keystrokes you type.  In the worst cases, they allow someone to take control of your computer remotely.  AdWare is software that allows advertisers access to your computer by installing a program that retrieves web pages or web content and displays it in windows that popup or banners. It can also be more subtle, such as adding sites to your web favorites list that you did not put there, or adding menu choices that lead you to services that advertisers want you to use.

As the line blurs between programs and web services, companies are getting more aggressive in the way they compete for attention on your computer. Web services are programs that provide some kind of service over the internet. Typically there is a component installed on your computer, and another component on a remote web site.  An example most people are familiar with is Microsoft Windows Update. You click on a menu choice, and your computer will connect to a Microsoft site. You download a piece of software which scans your computer, tells you what updates you need, and offers to install them automatically.  Another example is the QuickBooks. As part of the program you purchased, you are offered the opportunity (for a fee) to connect to the internet and have QuickBooks pay your bills, do your payroll, provide credit card services, etc. These offers show up at the opportune time when you are working in the program doing something related to the offer.

Most retail computers come loaded with free software – demo versions of programs that offer you the opportunity to buy the full version every time you use them. They also compete for mind share in more subtle ways - default web pages that connect you to other services from the vendor you bought your computer from, etc. Like all advertising, the hope is to target the people who would be interested in the products offered by finding ways to offer it that are tied to related work you do on your computer.

Where companies cross the line is when access is gained to your computer without your knowledge or consent. This new category of software is typically advertised as some sort of free utility or add-on that enhances your computer. At no extra charge, these utilities either spy on your activities, or allow advertisers access to your computer. This information or access is then sold to other companies who use it for marketing purposes.

Even though you may be protected by a firewall and antivirus software, you can go to web sites, and by clicking on something, install software on your computer. This process is (usually) not automatic – you have to give permission for the install to take place by clicking on something. These links can also appear in email. Typically they are something interesting and appealing, which add features to your web browser, or email. They can also be utilities such as screen savers, search tools, etc. Some of the more common ones are hotbar and gatorsurf. Kazaa, a free music download program, is another one that has gotten some publicity recently.

How do you know what is safe? You don’t. Our advice to clients is to use business computers for business. If you want to play around with downloading software from the internet, get another computer, and keep it off of your business network. http://www.spychecker.com maintains a searchable database of spyware. If you are thinking of installing a free utility, check there first.

There are tools that will help you to detect AdWare and SpyWare. They work similarly to antivirus software – the vendor keeps a database of known culprits, and scans your computer for matches. If they are found, the software offers to quarantine or remove them for you. Here are some of the more popular ones.

PestPatrol 4.1 http://www.centurionsoft.com/pestpatrol/index.html
Spybot Search and Destroy 1.1 http://spy-bot.eon.net.au
Adaware 6 http://www.lavasoftusa.com/software/adaware/

To learn more about AdWare and SpyWare, you can go to http://www.adware.info, and http://www.scumware.com.

Tim Torian has taught computer networking at the College of Sequoias and Cal Poly Extension. He has a BS in Computer Science, and has been consulting on computer networking for the past 30 Years. His industry certifications include: Cisco CCNA and CCNI, Microsoft MCSE. He was recognized as Entrepreneur of the year for 2008 by the Tulare County EDC. He is president of Torian Group, Inc. which provides a full range of Technology Consulting services to local business, including computer services, networking, web and custom software development. www.toriangroup.com


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