Spyware – Be very aware

Tuesday, March 8th, 2005

Spyware can record every keystroke and steal passwords

Peter Wilson


CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

Sioux Fleming of Computer Associates gives talks about the dangers of spyware; she says spyware almost always first appears after calls to the help desk.


You’re careful, even obsessive, when it comes to online banking. You never click on URLs in e-mail. You always make sure that the site is really that of your bank. You even check to see that you’re securely connected.

So why is all that money missing — having just been whipped electronically to the other side of the world?

Surprise, you’ve got spyware.

To be explicit, you have a keylogger installed somewhere in the deep recesses of your computer. And it’s recording every keystroke and sending it back on the Internet to folks harvesting user names and passwords.

That’s certainly one of the most dramatic effects of spyware, according to expert Sioux Fleming of Computer Associates, where she’s director of product management for the anti-spyware application eTrust PestPatrol.

But there’s another, far less sexy one, that costs businesses around the world what Fleming has said has been estimated in the trillions of dollars each year, although there are still no solid numbers available.

The more mundane part of the threat is that spyware, sneakware adware, snoopware, malware, or whatever you like to call it — all 30,000 applications tracked by the folks at PestPatrol so far — causes 40 per cent of all calls to corporate help desks.

It also prompts 10 per cent of tech calls to computer makers (where such a conversation can average 25 minutes), and causes, as recently estimated by Microsoft, 50 per cent of all PC crashes.

“The way spyware first appears is almost always calls to the help desk,” said Fleming, in Vancouver Thursday to talk to a Deloitte security seminar. “The computers are slower to boot, they’re a lot slower to connect to the Internet or people can’t use the Internet at all.”

The reason, said Fleming, is that spyware can start with downloading a single program, like one for file sharing, and then grow into several hundred in a matter of days. One program downloads a couple more and those download a couple more and so on.

Soon ads are popping up everywhere, you’re going to websites you didn’t want to see and information about your browsing habits and maybe even your banking passwords are flowing out on to the Net.

“Most of [the spyware programs] are what we call tricklers,” said Fleming. “They will keep downloading more and more things, because all these spyware companies have financial arrangements with one another. They get money for downloading each other’s programs.

Another trick is the pop-up that offers you a free anti-spyware program.

“Those are actually spyware programs,” said Fleming. “When you click on it it will come up and say that for only $29.95 you can get rid of it. So it’s a form of extortion.

Spyware programs are devilishly hard to get rid of, once they’re in place because even if you think they’re gone, if you even leave one in place it starts downloading all the others all over again.

Some applications, said Fleming, can even bring themselves back if just a small part has been left behind.

Oh, and if you remove some of them then that free file sharing program is disabled, too.


Five things Sioux Fleming recommends you do to battle spyware:

1. Get a credible spyware product. Install it, scan your computer and continue to use it. If you’re not sure what’s legitimate read reviews in respected magazines. Any online pop-up offering an anti-spyware program is probably spyware itself.

2. In a corporation, monitor network traffic going out. If you’re seeing a lot of traffic to a website or an obscure IP address that doesn’t make any sense, shut it down at the firewall level.

3. At work, ask yourself if your users need to install software. At home, ask if everyone in the family needs the right to install software.

4. For random surfing, you might want to switch to a browser other than Internet Explorer or use another operating system than Windows, like OS X for the Mac.

5. At home put a firewall in place, both hardware and software.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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