Outsmart Windows spyware on your PC
Spyware is big business for criminals and less ethical organisations 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 read our guide on how to beat computer viruses in Windows. The distinction between computer viruses, spyware and malware has become more hazy in recent years. By definition, a computer virus is a program that copies itself without the users permission. Modern computer viruses can also contain Spyware, though Spyware can end up on your system in a number of ways and is not always introduced by a computer virus. Software programs that contain these unwanted or malicious behaviours are referred to as malware.
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. This can be a serious threat if you use services like online banking or PayPal.
Of course, there are legitimate, useful reasons why you might want to share certain information about yourself with the rest of the world. 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 Extension is a popular add-on 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 if you want to.
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 browser plug-ins. Plug-ins, extensions and add-ons are pieces of software you can add to your browser to add more functionality. Unfortunately, running in tandem with your browser makes it easy for them to spy on the data you enter online. Be sure to only add extensions from reputable, trusted organisations and try to stick to only those that you really need. When surfing the web, always keep your browser up to date so that you have the latest protection against any kind of malware.
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 two of the best packages now.
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 – 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. Back with a new improved user interface and a whole host of improvements, Spybot is once again a favourite in the fight against spyware.
For help and advice on using anti-spyware products in Windows, check out our Windows spyware removal tutorials.
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