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Spyware: 2005's Security Scourge

Software tips to keep you safe

Pride comes before a fall. An old friend called me in a panic over the weekend to say that her computer wasn't working. Adverts for porn were popping up all over the place, her internet connection was really slow, and she couldn't browse certain sites. I explained all about spyware and smugly told myself 'it can't happen to me.'

How wrong I was. My computer was attacked three days later and I wouldn't even have known what caused it if I hadn't been running two very smart new programs: Prevx and Microsoft AntiSpyware.

Alarms started ringing when I was trying to get technical support online for a problem I was having. Opening a few sites produced a cascade of warnings from the two programs. Within minutes, just by browsing the internet, I had been infected with 11 different trojan and spyware applications including:

180search Assistant - a program that logs the web pages you visit and sends the list to remote servers

IST.XXXToolbar - a program which displays adverts for adult content while you browse

ShopAtHome - a program that hijacks your internet browser and redirects it to ecommerce sites

Beat spyware

I'm afraid that this will be the security scourge of 2005. The three old remedies - a firewall, regular updates and antivirus software - won't completely protect you against them, although you still need them to protect against other threats.

Intrusion prevention is the fourth basic security requirement. It encompasses spyware and the nasties that get past other defences for whatever reason. I recommend that you install Microsoft's AntiSpyware. I used this to remove the spyware from my computer and it stopped some of it from installing in the first place.

For additional protection, install one or more of the following anti-spyware tools: SpywareBlaster, Spybot Search and Destroy, and AdAware.

Intrusion prevention beats cure

I also like Prevx, a free intrusion prevention program. Rather than scanning for known spyware, it monitors your computer for unusual behaviour.

This means it's able to catch attacks which are launched on the internet with no warning. The downside is occasional false alarms, particularly when installing new, legitimate programs, so I wouldn't recommend it for complete novices. For everyone else, though, it's a must.

Prevx make industrial strength intrusion prevention systems to stop attacks on commercial servers. They released a free home version to gather intelligence on threats and to stop home users spreading them. The technology is clever and used by large companies to protect themselves.

Don't go there

The final tip is the least technical. Stick to websites you trust and which belong to reputable companies. Use your browser's security controls and never download any programs that you don't recognise or any 'free' programs that support themselves with adverts. You'll reduce the chances of getting spyware to begin with.

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