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June 2004

Do You Feel Like Someone is
Watching You When You Are On The Internet?

   If you are on the Internet, the chances are very good you are being watched by advertisers who monitor your Internet usage to determine what products you might want to buy. “Spyware” is the name for software that is downloaded into your computer, often without your knowledge or consent. The spyware is installed as tracking software in your computer and it “calls home” using your Internet connection to report where you are—and have been—on the Internet. Spyware is also known more officially as “advertising supported software,” or “adware.”

   Spyware not only invades your privacy, but it can also substantially slow down your personal computer, swamp you with unwanted pop-up advertisements, and (in its worse forms) steal your passwords and credit card numbers. Recently, my home computer was analyzed for spyware because it was taking much longer to load websites and I was bombarded with annoying pop-up ads. Sure enough, the computer had downloaded quite a bit of spyware.

   Spyware is not illegal and advertisers often argue that ethical companies do not collect sensitive data from your computer and will not disclose the nature of the data being collected. Advertisers also argue that you are essentially anonymous in their tracking.

   However, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is concerned enough about spyware use that it held a Spyware Workshop in April. The FTC is reviewing several issues: (1) what is the impact of spyware on a computer’s resources—does it effect consumers’ ability to use their computers, (2) to what extent do spyware programs hijack computer browsers, (3) do spyware programs pose security hazards, and (4) can spyware capture a consumer’s computer and use it to send out unwanted e-mails?

   Consumer advocates are concerned because spyware technology is capable of sending sensitive data such as passwords and there is little or no way for the consumer to control what information is being sent.

   If you are concerned, you may want to visit www.spychecker.com. This site allows you to check what software you are being asked to download to determine if it is spyware. This site also offers free programs to help your computer block spyware. One free program is “Ad-Aware,” a program offered by Lavasoft. According to Lavasoft, Ad-aware scans your memory; registry; and hard, removable, and optical drives for known data-mining, aggressive advertising, and tracking components. It then lists the results and offers to remove or quarantine the components.

   Before downloading Ad-Aware or any similar program, be aware that removing certain tracking components may affect your use of related software. For example, I regularly delete Internet cookies. However, when I do so, this often makes it more time-consuming for me to download certain websites. Therefore, I recommend you fully read the included Ad-Aware documentation before removing any files.

   The FTC is continuing its review of spyware and you can access its site at www.ftc.gov if you want to monitor the progress of its discussions on this important privacy issue.

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