The lowdown on anti-spyware tools

What is spyware? Run-of-the-mill spyware records and/or transmits information without notifying the user. It's normally sent to your system over an Internet connection. High-end spyware, computer monitoring software planted by someone specifically interested in your computer or network (such as a real spy), is difficult to detect and remove. Anti-spyware tools don't always detect these advanced surveillance products, which can be planted in many ways including through an e-mail greeting card or direct physical access to a system.
In addition to disclosing information, all spyware, even benign ad trackers, degrades system performance.

What should you protect? It's best to prevent any and all unnecessary information from going out on the Internet. The challenge comes when you don't know what's leaving your system. Spyware plucks information you might not know it's taking, such as what you're looking at on-screen.

Even e-mail addresses should be guarded because, except for online accounts such as Yahoo Mail where they can guess many valid addresses, spammers generally only target accounts they find in newsgroups, on Web sites or elsewhere on the Net. Anti-spam tools help, but a good address privacy policy can reduce the spam load by denying your address to mailing list vendors.

Must Know Info? Any computer connected to the Internet, either directly or through a network, is exposed to information-gathering tools. Spyware can track browsing habits, log keystrokes and mine vulnerable systems for confidential data. The most serious spyware, system monitors, may be planted directly on systems without access to the Web.

Remote computers that log onto an office network must be protected in the same way enterprise clients and servers are. Laptops, especially those with wireless capabilities, must also be secured.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation has a useful list of 12 ways to protect your privacy online. It's available at www.eff.org/Privacy/eff_privacy_top_12.html.

How do anti-spyware tools work? Basic adware detection software relies on known code that is identified in a database, which explains why many free adware scanners are effective. These tools are ideal for systems you may not be able to spend money protecting (teleworkers' home PCs, for instance), but may still expose important data.

Advanced tools may also monitor activity patterns to detect spyware.

Microsoft's plans? Microsoft will add privacy protection in future Windows releases in the form of 'info-cards,' a two-part authentication system. Unlike the largely failed .NET Passport, info-cards will not collect personal information in a central repository, leaving it instead on the individual computers.

Info-card technology is expected to be part of the new WinFx programming model, but few details are available.

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