By now, anyone who uses a PC knows about viruses and the need to defend against them. But they are not the only threat. Spyware, programs that snoop on your online activities and send the info to third parties without your knowledge, is another class of software that requires your attention. As usual, the cure requires buying and running still more software.
Spyware comes in several varieties of varying nastiness. Adware tracks your Web surfing activities and reports back to agencies, which use the data to send you ads supposedly tailored to your interests. Worse are key loggers, which can record everything you type and report personal data, including user names and passwords, to identity thieves.
Some programs have a legitimate reason to report information, but any program that is going to send data to a third party should get your explicit, informed permission. Google offers a model of the right way to do it. When you download the Google Toolbar, it asks if you want to install a feature that reports information to Google that is used to improve searches. If you say no, you still get the toolbar, but it cannot personalize search results as precisely.
OTHER PROGRAMS ARE LESS UP FRONT. RealNetworks' (RNWK ) RealPlayer will include reporting software unless you uncheck a box during setup. With the Kazaa music download service, you have to drill down through five pages to learn that you are installing adware from Claria. Some programs slip a line granting permission to send data into the license agreement that few read. And the most unscrupulous ones don't bother asking for permission.
Your first line of defense against spyware is to be careful about what software you install and to pay close attention to the options offered during setup. For example, I let the Google Toolbar send data because I find it invaluable and I trust Google. But I say no to most everything else.
How do you protect yourself against sneaky spyware? A firewall program, such as Symantec's (SYMC ) Norton Personal Firewall ($49.95) or Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm ($39.95 for Plus version; basic version is free), is of some help because it will object when a program unknown to it tries to send data to the Web. Running a firewall is always a good idea, though the approach fails when spyware succeeds in hiding itself inside a program, such as Internet Explorer, that is authorized to send data.
The best solution is to get additional protection by adding a program that is specifically designed to detect and block spyware. Many are available, but be careful of free products because there are reports that some actually contain spyware.
I recommend three programs: Spy Sweeper from Webroot Software, the established leader; the new McAfee AntiSpyware; and Ad-aware from Lavasoft. Both Spy Sweeper ($29.95 with a free trial) and AntiSpyware ($39.95 with a $10 rebate) are sold like antivirus software, with annual subscriptions. Ad-aware, which has an automatic update service, costs $26.95 for the Plus edition; a basic version is free. The paid versions of these products give you much more control over what you want to allow and what you want to block.
These do a good job, but it's annoying to have to buy and run software to deal with a problem that lawmakers could do something about. Surprisingly, it is perfectly legal for companies to install most spyware without a user's informed consent. (The legality of key loggers has yet to be tested.) Several bills have been introduced in Congress to restrict the practice, but action is unlikely this year. (Utah recently became the first state to restrict spyware.) So I am left offering the familiar, but critical, advice: Be careful about what you download and install, and consider adding an anti-spyware program to your computer's armor.