Outsmart Windows spyware on your PC
Spyware is big business for criminals and less ethical organizations on the internet today. If you want to make sure your computers working for you and not spying on you, this guide is the place to start.
You should already have some idea of what Windows spyware actually does if you have already read our guide on how to beat computer viruses in Windows. Although not as dangerous as computer viruses, spyware can nevertheless spell trouble for Windows users. This article will explain how, why and what to do about spyware on your system.
What is spyware?
As we discussed in our article about computer viruses, spyware is software that is designed to watch events on your computer and report this information back via the internet. Data on the web sites you visit, for example, is extremely valuable to marketing and market research companies. Information on the media you watch or listen to can be used by sites to build a profile of what kind of consumer you are and then used for targeted advertising. More sinister Windows spyware may even try and capture passwords, files or PIN numbers as you enter them.
At this point, it is worth reminding you that not all Windows spyware is necessarily bad. At Top-Windows-Tutorials.com we are big fans of LastFM, which logs what music you listen to and makes recommendations on new music based on the data it collects. The Alexa Toolbar is a popular toolbar that, amongst other useful features, uses data it collects on your surfing habits to bring back better search results for you. Both of these freely available pieces of software are considered by some people to be spyware. Unless you are concerned about keeping the data they collect confidential, there is no reason why you should not use them.
Having said that, your computer belongs to you and you only and you should decide who gets your data and who does not.
Malicious spyware, such as programs which collect private data like passwords or PIN numbers, should be removed or, better still, blocked from entering your system at all times.
Benign ‘spyware’ such as Alexa should only be running on your PC with your permission.
Still curious about the different types of Windows spyware? check out the wikipedia article on Windows spyware.
Why is Windows spyware such a big problem?
Remember the last time you installed some new software on your computer? Was it a great free application you downloaded from the web, or perhaps an application package you purchased from a store? Either way, it is extremely likely that when you installed it at some point it presented you with a 4 or 5 page long “end user licence agreement” or “EULA”. These are typically extremely wordy, legal documents designed partly to cover the authors or distributors against anyone who uses the software incorrectly and then tries to sue. Now, did you actually read all of the EULA when you installed the software? If you answered No then don’t worry, neither did I!
Now, remember we said before that spyware should only be collecting data on you with your permission? This isn’t just a courtesy, if an application collects data on you without your permission then it is probably illegal. However, in that wordy, boring EULA, sly marketing companies added clauses that allowed them to install all sorts of Windows spyware along with otherwise useful or harmless looking free applications. Aside from violating your privacy, these sneaky applications can slow your computer or internet connection down, as they beaver away collecting your information. One of these applications you might not even notice, but if you surf around and try out lots of software, they can quickly build up until your system becomes slow or even unstable.
Antivirus vs. Anti-Spyware
When this article was originally published, there was a more clear distinction between antivirus products and anti-spyware. In more recent times however, the whole anti-malware market has converged and typically antivirus packages will scan for spyware too. If you are particularly concerned about spyware, it can’t hurt to scan your computer with a dedicated anti-spyware package especially as many of them are free. If you decide to install an anti-spyware package with real time (automatic) scanning capabilities, make sure that it can run in tandem with your antivirus solution. Remember that real time scanning also consumes computing resources and will have a small impact on your computers performance.
Outsmarting Windows spyware
To keep one step ahead of spyware, you don’t need to start reading EULA’s or even stop downloading free software. A few sensible precautions are all that is needed to keep your PC spyware free. Following the guidelines for keeping your system virus free that we set out in our computer viruses article will also help you in the fight against Windows spyware, but here are a few more pointers to keep your PC running spyware free.
If in doubt, Google it! If you are thinking of trying out some free software and you have not heard of the company behind it before, do a little research first. Usually all it takes is a quick look on Google to find out about any software on the net.
One search-bar is enough. If you like the facilities offered by a search bar or browser tool bar, then choose one from one of the reputable providers such as Yahoo! MSN, Google or Alexa. Resist the temptation to use every free search bar or desktop widget available on the web. Even if these programs are harmless, running software you do not use will simply slow your computer down. Do not let your PC wind up looking like the picture below!
Ensure your firewall is enabled. Use a software firewall such as the Windows firewall or Zone Alarm. A hardware firewall such as those that routers or broadband sharing hardware often incorporate will almost always offer no protection whatsoever against Windows spyware running itself on your PC. With a software firewall installed, programs must be given permission to connect to the internet. This is ideal for spotting potential spyware applications as they no longer can send information outside of your computer without your permission. If you want to learn more about firewalls, check out our firewall and internet security software section.
Beware of malicious ActiveX controls. ActiveX controls are extensions that work with Microsoft Internet Explorer. ActiveX controls can do all sorts of wonderful things such as play video or display PDF documents and are used by companies such as Adobe and Microsoft to extend Internet Explorers functionality. Unfortunately, ActiveX controls can also be used as a means of installing spyware or even computer viruses. Because of this you should NEVER install an ActiveX control from a site you do not explicitly trust. If you are concerned about accidentally installing an ActiveX control, consider using Firefox or Opera web browsers instead and always keep your browser up to date!
Scan your computer occasionally using one of our recommended packages. Even if you take all of the above precautions, it can’t hurt to scan your PC from time to time. We’ll take a look at three of the best packages now.
Lavasoft Ad-Aware – A firm favourite amongst the Top-Windows-Tutorials staff, Ad-Aware has been cleaning spyware for the better part of a decade and has remained a trusted and powerful spyware cleaning solution throughout its long life. Extremely easy to use and better still, free for non commercial use, there really isn’t much you can say against this superb little package. Paid versions even include real-time spyware monitoring (that means it watches out for spyware in the background while you work, rather than just when you run a scan) and full technical support.
MalwareBytes Anti-Malware – A popular and critically acclaimed anti-malware package that has extensive anti-spyware capabilities. The free version of the software can scan your PC, while a paid version offers real-time protection too.
Spybot Search & Destroy – A very powerful, feature rich and effective spyware scanner that amazingly is totally free. Spybot’s advanced features have been praised by computer experts and system administrators. However, its more technical interface can be intimidating to novice users when compared with Ad-Aware. Many users install both Ad-Aware and Spybot, especially when scanning systems that are already infected with spyware in order to scan for the broadest range of malicious software. Waning in popularity in recent years after receiving a number of damning reviews, this solution is best used in conjunction with other packages, if at all.
For help and advice on using anti-spyware products in Windows, check out our Windows spyware removal tutorials.
Discuss this page in our forum.