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How Spyware Works


Legality

­ So is it legal to install difficult-to-remove software without the user's permission? Not really. There's an increasing body of state legislation that explicitly bans spyware, including the Spyware Control Act in Utah and the Consumer Protection Against Computer Spyware Act in California. But even without these new state laws, federal law already prohibits spyware. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act covers any unauthorized software installations. Deceptive trade practices of any kind also violate the Federal Trade Commission Act. Additionally, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act makes it unlawful for companies to violate the security of customers' personal information.

Just like anti-spam legislation, these spyware laws can be very difficult to enforce in practice, and the perpetrators know it. It can be tough to find hard evidence connecting individual companies to their spyware products, and, as with all Internet-related lawsuits, there are often battles over which court's jurisdiction applies to the case. Just because it's illegal doesn't mean it's easy to stop.

How can you protect yourself against spyware, and what can you do if you think you already have some on your computer? Here are a few suggestions.

Use a spyware scanner.

There are several applications you can turn to for trustworthy spyware detection and removal, including Ad-aware, Spybot and Microsoft AntiSpyware, which is currently in beta. All three are free for the personal edition. These work just like your anti-virus software and can provide active protection as well as detection. They will also detect Internet cookies and tell you which sites they refer back to.

Note - Once you know which spyware is on your computer, in some cases you'll need to seek specific instructions on how to remove it. Links to some of those instructions are listed in the "Spyware Help" box to the right, and more are included in the Lots More Information section at the end of this article. Here are a few more solutions:

Use a pop-up blocker.

Many of the current browsers, including Internet Explorer 6.0 and Mozilla Firefox 1.0, have the ability to block all Web sites from serving you pop-up windows. This function can be configured to be on all of the time or to alert you each time a site wants to pop up a new window. It can also tell you where the pop-up is coming from and selectively allow windows from trusted sources.

Disable Active-X.

Most browsers have security settings in their preferences which allow you to specify which actions Web sites are allowed to take on your machine. Since many spyware applications take advantage of a special code in Windows called Active-X, it's not a bad idea to simply disable Active-X on your browser. Note that if you do this, you will also disallow the legitimate uses for Active-X, which may interfere with the functionality of some Web sites.

Be suspicious of installing new software.

In general, it pays to be suspicious when a site asks to install something new on your computer. If it's not a plug-in you recognize, like Flash, QuickTime or the latest Java engine, the safest plan of action is to reject the installation of new components unless you have some specific reason to trust them. Today's Web sites are sophisticated enough that the vast majority of functionality happens inside your browser, requiring only a bare minimum of standard plug-ins. Besides, it never hurts to reject the installation first and see if you can get on without it. A trustworthy site will always give you the opportunity to go back and download a needed component later.

Use the "X" to close pop-up windows.

Get to know what your computer's system messages look like so that you can spot a fake. It's usually pretty easy to tell the difference once you get to know the standard look of your system alerts. Stay away from the "No thanks" buttons if you can help it, and instead close the window with the default "X" at the corner of the toolbar. For an even more reliable option, use the keystroke combination for "close window" built into your software. You can look in your browser's "File" menu to find it.

For more information on spyware, spyware removal and related topics, check out the links on the next page.