Hundreds of free programs available on the Internet include “spyware” components.
Those are instructions that monitor your online activity and transmit the information to computers owned by advertisers. The ad companies then can use it to send you targeted advertisements for products and services that seem to match your interests.
There's the privacy issue, of course, and the issue of getting unsolicited ads. In addition, you're paying for the Internet connection that others are secretly using for their own profit. And certain spyware may hinder the performance of older computers using slow dialup Internet connections.
Think your Internet activity isn't worth monitoring, or that there can't be spyware on your computer? Visit an Internet site that provides a free spyware analysis.
One good choice is www.pc pitstop.com, which does a general analysis of your computer for possible trouble spots. It also reports on the presence of spyware, and carries a clickable link to www.pestpatrol.com.
PestPatrol is one of several good spyware-specific sites. An Internet search (try “spyware analyzer”) will turn up other good choices.
These sites usually do a comprehensive scan of your hard disk, producing a detailed list of spyware programs currently installed. They typically offer their own anti-spyware programs to remove the existing stuff and protect against new spyware invasions.
I let PestPatrol analyze one of the kids' PCs at home a few days ago, and it found dozens of spyware programs.
Buying specific anti-spyware software is one option for dealing with the problem. It may not be the best.
One alternative is to buy spyware protection as part of an all-in-one package of computer security software that includes an anti-virus shield and other tools.
Among the programs offering spyware protection are the two industry leaders, McAfee and Norton. Spyware protection has been standard since 2002 in McAfee's personal firewall products (www.mcafee.com) and Symantec's Norton Personal Firewall (www.norton.com).
Another is the Anonymizer service (www.anonymizer. com), a $29-a-year privacy service that cloaks your activity on the Internet. It includes a feature that prevents your computer from transmitting personal information.
Another alternative is prevention.
Before downloading a free program, check it on a spyware database like (www.spycheck er.com) or (http://grc.com/ optout.htm.) If the program contains spyware, don't download it. Some manufacturers offer the option of downloading a spyware-free version for a fee, or allow a no-charge opt-out.
Many companies disclose the presence of spyware in the user agreement displayed during the download. Read the fine print for indications that the program will gather information. Don't put too much faith in promises about not gathering personal information.
If you're concerned about spyware, click the “Don't agree” button.