Is Something Inside Watching You

March 22, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Remember how James Bond always searched his hotel room for “bugs” — clandestine listening devices?

Well, you could have a bug or two in your computer — or even dozens of them.

According to Adam Gaver, a systems engineer with Remex Systems Group, the bugs might be one or more copies of programs called spyware — hidden applications that users often unknowingly download from the Internet.

Spyware, Gaver said, can record information about the owner of a computer and send it to others on the Internet. He said spyware also can slow down a system and give others an espionage entree to one’s personal finances or business dealings. 

And it’s legal.

Graver said people unwittingly install spyware programs on their computers because they rarely read all the fine print in the user agreements that they accept. He said such agreements often may include a spyware clause buried deep in the legalese.

“Spyware hides within the most unassuming of applications,” Gaver added.

“Take a program that gives you the outside temperature on your computer, for instance. Upon installing this program, you will also be allowing spyware onto your PC, which will then continuously monitor information on your computer.

“This is the price you pay to have a little thermometer on the bottom of your screen. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize it.”

He explained that spyware is commonly used by marketers monitoring surfing habits to better target consumers with pop-ups and spam. Some more sinister forms of spyware — often called “malware” for “malicious software” — can monitor keystrokes, making it possible to steal important information such as account numbers. 

Gaver reports finding one customer’s PC with 150 MB of active applications running at once. He said the computer was so filled with spyware it was nearly unusable. 

Fortuantely, it is fairly simple to rid one’s computer of spyware, and usually free.

Gaver said firms like SpyBot and Ad-aware offer free search-and-destroy programs. Gaver recommends updating and running these programs just as often as anti-virus software.

“It has gotten to the point where I install SpyBot and anti-virus software before I install MS Office at a business,” Gaver added. 

“In fact, spyware may be more of a threat to people and business than viruses,” he said.

“Viruses can be isolated and there is adequate protection. Spyware is there all the time, lowering productivity, stealing processor cycles and slowing down systems.

“A virus may crash a system and important things would be lost,” he added, “but spyware may be recording bank account numbers. That could hurt a lot more than a crashed computer.”

Gaver notes that some users aren’t bothered by the fact that marketers are using their surfing information to better target them with junk.

He cautions, “Although many of these spyware programs claim they don’t use the information they record for malicious intent, anyone who secretly runs programs on your computer shouldn’t be trusted.”

Remex Systems Group is part of the Trivalent Group formed last year when Trivalent Communications and Remex Corp. merged.

Trivalent is headquartered in Grandville and employees 100 people in West Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.

To educate local businesses about this problem, Remex is holding a luncheon seminar on threats to desktop security and on spyware at 11 a.m., April 30. It is open to those who call 957-5384.

Remex is located at 4607 44th St. SE in Kentwood.     

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