Microsoft takes crack at counter-espionage software

Box score

It's the same old story. Microsoft buys a company, makes minor improvements to the technology and releases its own product. This time Microsoft Corp. took aim at anti-spyware companies by purchasing Giant Company Software Inc. and releasing a beta version of its own newly acquired and modified anti-spyware program.

After a week of use we found Microsoft Windows AntiSpyware surprisingly easy to use and effective, particularly if you spend a lot of time on the Internet. It monitors 59 checkpoints in your operating system and stops programs that attempt to make threatening changes to your OS, such as Registry key edits. The checkpoints are broken down into three agents, or categories: Internet agents, which focus on your net connection and settings; system agents, which look for security or operating system modifications; and application agents, which scan for spyware that alters exisiting applications such as ActiveX or Internet Explorer.

Windows AntiSpyware is only a 6.4M download and installation takes just four clicks, with no required or recommended reboots. Throughout the setup process, Microsoft gives you the option not to use their recommended services. When it comes to the product's SpyNet feature, that might be a good idea.

SpyNet is Microsoft's first anti-spyware community, which operates like an antivirus cluster. If a member of SpyNet gets a new type of spyware bug, the SpyNet network analyzes the systems and the bug, comes up with a cure and sends the fix or vaccine to other SpyNet users. The problem is that SpyNet can be a little intrusive: Your computer status must be reported to a Microsoft network.

Windows AntiSpyware is almost like an antivirus program. The checkpoint agents stop suspicious changes in a real-time way and prompt you for action. Then it's up to you to quarantine the spy bug, delete it or keep it going. In our initial scan, which took less than two minutes, the application found one case of spyware and we immediately removed it.

Not surprisingly, Windows AntiSpyware looks for programs that hijack other Microsoft applications, such as Mozilla's FireFox hijacking Internet Explorer, but gives you the option to permanently ignore such alerts. We found this 'play nicely with others' attitude refreshing coming from Microsoft.

Another good feature of Windows AntiSpyware is the Track Eraser, which lets you permanently delete all traces of your Internet activity, as well as activity from most always-connected software, such Quick Time, MSN Messenger, Media Player and Adobe Acrobat.

Room for improvement

Although we're happy to see the steps Microsoft has taken with Windows AntiSpyware, and we're aware it is currently a beta version, there are improvements we feel Microsoft will have to make in order to compete with established anti-spyware programs, such as Ad-Aware by Lavasoft Inc. of Sweden. Two in particular are improvements in speed and accuracy. During our tests, Windows AntiSpyware scanned 27,424 files in one minute, 44 seconds. Ad-Aware scanned 62,226 files in less than a minute and identified 53 suspects, mostly cookies, that the Microsoft application missed. Granted, some cookies are necessary for good Web surfing, but users should know they're there and have the option to delete them if they wish.

Ultimately, what Windows AntiSpyware has going for it that other programs often don't is that it's free. We're fans of the free version of Ad-Aware, but for active monitoring and other advanced features, you have to upgrade to Ad-Aware SE Plus ($27) or Ad-Aware SE Professional ($40).

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