spyware is computer software that gathers information about a computer user without the user's knowledge or informed consent, and then transmits this information to an organisation that expects to be able to profit from it in some way. Data-collecting programs installed with the user's knowledge are not, properly speaking, spyware, if the user fully understands what data is being collected and with whom it is being shared.
More broadly, the term spyware is applied to a wide range of related malware products which are not spyware in the strict sense. These products perform many different functions, including the delivery of unrequested advertising (pop-ups in particular), harvesting private information, re-routing page requests to illegally claim commercial site referral fees, and installing stealth phone dialers.
Unprotected Windows-based computers, particularly those used by children or credulous adults, can rapidly accumulate a great many spyware components—several hundred individual instances is common. The consequences of a moderate to severe spyware infection (privacy issues aside) generally include a substantial loss of system performance (over 50% in severe cases), and major stability issues (crashes and hangs). Difficulty connecting to the Internet is another common symptom.
Spyware infection is now (as of 2004) responsible for more visits to professional computer repairers than any other single cause. In more than half of these cases, the user is unaware of the spyware problem and initially assumes that the system performance, stability, and/or connectivity issues are related to hardware, Windows installation problems, or a virus.
Some spyware products have additional consequences. Dialers attempt to connect directly to a particular telephone number rather than to the user's own ISP: where the number in question is interstate or overseas, this can result in massive telephone bills which the user has no choice but to pay. To further compound the situation, some telephone companies have taken advantage of the situation by charging more for dialing the locations where these scams originate. Eircom, the former state telecom operator in Ireland has placed a number of small Pacific islands (where the scams originate) in a special €6/min tariff band. Unlike the band of special premium rate numbers, telephone subscribers cannot block these numbers.
Spyware Installation Spyware is normally installed through either one of two common methods. The first is to hide a spyware component within an otherwise apparently useful program. Often, the containing program is made available for download free of charge, so as to encourage wide uptake of the spyware component. The second common method is to take advantage of security flaws in Internet Explorer. Spyware can also be installed on a computer by a virus or an e-mail trojan program, but this is not common.
The HTTP cookie is a well-known mechanism for storing information about an Internet user on their own computer, often used to assign webite visitors an individual identification number for subsequent recognition. However, the existence of cookies and their use is generally not concealed from users, who can also disallow access to cookie information. Nevertheless, to the extent that a Web site uses a cookie identifier to build a profile about the user, who does not know what information is added to this profile, the cookie mechanism could be considered a form of spyware. For example, a search engine website could assign a user an individual ID the first time he visits and store all search terms in a database with this ID as a key on all subsequent visits (until the cookie expires or is deleted). This data could be used to select advertisements to display to that user, or could—legally or illegally—be transmitted to third parties.
Another cause is granting permission for web-based applications to integrate into your system. These browser helper objects embed itself as part of your web browser.
Spyware is usually installed by some stealthy means. If you read the user agreements for the software you download and install, references (sometimes vague) are cited for allowing the issuing company of the software to record your internet usage and website surfing. Some software vendors allow you to buy the same product without this overhead.
Neglect is an additional cause. Use of automatic updates, antivirus, and other software upgrades will protect your system. Software bugs and exploits remain with older software, because the public is more aware how to invade your system.
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