You are purchasing an item in E-bay when suddenly a pop-up window—”WARNING, your computer may be at risk.”—blocks your view. You do exactly what is suggested, clicking “OK”, completely unaware that you just might have only made matters worse.

That was possibly spyware, a program that, once installed in a computer, gathers the user’s information on the user’s surfing habits, history of visited sites, e-mail addresses, passwords and even credit card numbers. It is usually installed without the user’s knowledge since most spyware secretly come with downloadable software or even pop-ups.

Spyware is very difficult, if not impossible, to remove using standard techniques. Experts estimate that 95 per cent of the computers worldwide are infiltrated by spywares.

The term spyware was first used in Oct. 16, 1995, in Usenet, a communication system in the Internet where users post e-mail-like messages. The term later referred to espionage equipment like small, hidden cameras. The first popular spyware appeared in November 1999 and was called “Elf Bowling”, an online game that relayed user information back to its creator.

Popping out of proportion

Spyware is one of the many types of “malware”, or malicious software, that harms computer systems. Other malware include computer viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. A spyware spreads like Trojan horses—making their way through essential software, without necessarily infecting other software like viruses do. On the other hand, worms, which are stand-alone software, modify computer systems to become part of the boot process. Meanwhile, Trojan horse is a program that activates other malware, causing further system damage.

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Remembering daddy

Since most spyware are created for advertising and commercial purposes, they are commonly presented as pop-up advertisements. Infliction occurs when users open a website and are rerouted instead to a different web page—usually promotional or pornographic. They can also hide inside file-sharing programs such as Kazaa and Grokster, spam, e-mail attachments, and malicious web pages, according to Roland Jan Mallari, assistant for programming in the Computer Center Tomweb unit.

“Spywares can also slow down the performance of computer systems, causing frequent crashes,” Mallari said. “It is usually silent, thus, mistakenly thought to be a problem with the system’s performance, stability, or connection.”

“There are also spywares which manipulate the use of the computer from changing the wallpaper and preventing boot-up,” he added.

Losing track

According to John Uy, network operations head of the Santo Tomas E-Service Providers, the only way to make sure a computer does not harbor spywares is by scanning the hard drive with an anti-spyware application. Although UST does not have a licensed anti-spyware application, it employs freely available tools like Ad-Aware, Spybot Search &Destroy, and Microsoft Anti-Spyware.

“The University used to have a centralized anti-virus system which blocks suspicious downloadable programs in the internet,” Uy said. (refer to sidebar)

“To prevent spywares as well as computer viruses, make sure that anti-virus software like McAfee and Norton are regularly updated. These software may cost a great amount, but to ensure the safety of your computer system, it is wise to invest in these,” Jun Dolor, University webmaster, suggested.

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