Spy vs. anti-spyware

Privacy tools are critical for protecting agency networks and remote systems

The question is simple. Does information pass through your computer that you wouldn't want posted on the Internet? Chances are, it does.

You simply can't keep a secret in Washington, but government workers still need to keep their activities hidden from random snoops on the Web'whether teleworking or sitting at their desks.
I'm not referring to confidential information'this guide doesn't deal with protecting 'secret' data'but there's still a lot you don't want strangers to know about, including what sites you surf or what you may be researching. If you log onto remote networks or sites that are government-only networks, you don't want to broadcast the existence of these sites, let alone your user name and password.

A new privacy premium

Protecting confidential information used to be simpler when most people with Internet access exchanged e-mail and accessed sites through a server, so managers protected everyone's data using network- or even enterprise-level tools.

With today's wireless-enabled laptops and growing legion of teleworkers, managers must pay almost as much attention to protecting standalone PCs as networks.

Concealing data means eliminating adware, spyware and cookies, as well as cleaning out traces of earlier Internet activity from systems. Fresh infections can glean a lot of information from memory caches.

What's the difference between adware and spyware? Simply put, adware tracks your browsing habits'usually innocently and anonymously'and generally de- grades system performance. Spyware, the more insidious of the two, actively watches computer activity, captures identifiable information and sends it back to a remote server. Spyware includes key loggers, which record your keystrokes (it knows what password you typed); e-mail redirectors, which intercept e-mail messages; chat and URL loggers, which monitor instant messages; and screen recorders, which steal electronic snapshots of your on-screen activity.

This guide presents software to protect networks and individual computers. It mainly examines programs that block or remove spyware and clean your computer of Internet activity.

Although the table focuses on standard privacy tools intended to keep information about your computer and its data confidential, some government officials, such as those in law enforcement, also need to further conceal their online activities. If you fall into that category or frequently use public wireless hotspots, you'll need a specialized tool such as those offered by Anonymizer Inc. or Tenebril Inc. These tools provide encrypted tunnels to the Net.

Technologies such as encryption and firewalls are also vital privacy tools: Firewalls in particular can include content-filtering tools that prevent specific information from passing through a system and onto the Internet. Look for them in future GCN Buyers Guides.

First-hand knowledge

After some testing, I've selected three anti-spyware tools for my personal use. Why three? Because while one tool might be good at defeating spyware, another might be better at ridding a system of adware.

This is not to say these tools are better than others in the guide, but they suit me well. Your needs will likely vary.

Microsoft's free AntiSpyware (still in beta form) does a good job of blocking new infections but misses a lot of installed adware. Its real-time protection prevents programs from changing your Internet settings, blocks unauthorized changes to your operating system or security settings, prevents modification of applications, and notifies of new software installation attempts or ActiveX downloads. The Tracks Eraser feature cleans up activity history, even from the Registry.

Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE is available in free and commercial versions. Even the free version does a much better job of removing adware than AntiSpyware.

Ad-Aware SE Professional adds a HexDump option, which lets you view the hexadecimal version of a file turned up in a scan. The software can also watch for activities that could signify the presence of new spyware not in a database.

SE Professional also includes improved logging and extensive customization, plus extensive memory and registry scanning.

The third program in my daily privacy arsenal is Definitive Solutions' BHODemon, which monitors and manages Browser Helper Objects. A Browser Helper Object is a small program installed on your system by another software program that runs automatically every time you start your browser.

BHODemon lists any installed BHO, indicates whether it's active and/or benign, and provides extensive information about the code. Some BHOs are useful, such as AcroIEhelper.ocx, which lets your browser load and display Acrobat files. You probably also have one associated with your antivirus software. Other BHOs, however, can do virtually anything on your system, including reading, writing and deleting files. BHODemon finds BHOs and helps you determine what they do and where they came from, so you can decide whether to remove them or not.

All three of these products come in free versions, an unbeatable price when it comes to securing your privacy online.

John McCormick is a freelance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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