Spyware and OptOut
from the September 2000 Actrix Newsletter

by Rob Zorn

More by chance than by design, this month's newsletter has pretty much an internet security focus. I had long planned to introduce the small, free, safe and useful OptOut program which eliminates spyware from your machine. We also have the second hacker-based article by Dean Moor. As promised, our Boy Wonder, Jeremy Fairbrass, has also reviewed ZoneAlarm.

So Just what is Spyware?

Spyware is any software that sits on your machine and reports information about you or your internet activities without your knowledge. Reckon you don't have any on your machine? You might be surprised.

The last time I ran OptOut, it found I had been housing a couple of these little spyware programs that had been doing their dastardly work on me for who knows how long. OptOut removed them. For the purpose of this article, I ran the program again and was thankfully clean. Now while I don't particularly have anything to hide, I do find it extremely irritating to have my internet activity reported to someone else without my knowledge or consent, and that's why a program like OptOut is so useful.

Spyware typically finds its way onto your machine through adware programs that are built into other software that you download. Adware programs squirt advertising at you, usually as a way free software distributors have of making money. The other type of spyware is reportedly employed even by big and well-known companies such as Netzip, Real Networks and even Netscape/AOL. These companies provide download programs that report back to their makers with varying amounts of information about you and just what it is you have been downloading.

Other known spyware culprits are Aureate/Radiate, GoHip, Conducent and Comet Cursor.

Spyware is not destructive in the way that viruses are. It does not interfere with your files or erase anything. Unlike Trojan Horses, Spyware doesn't open your ports sneakily or provide access to your machine to someone else. The fact is, though, that in one way or another, they spy on you and hide from you. This is bad, bad, bad!

OptOut is currently free to good homes, though its creator, Steve Gibson, is now working on a new, improved and commercial version that will be for sale. Until then, he invites any Windows user to freely download and use the free version.

The program is small, taking less than a minute to download with a 56K modem. It is simple to use, having only one main button. When you open the program it scans your registry and reports its findings. Clicking the Deep Scan button will cause it to scan your hard drive for Spyware. The button then gives you the option of removing or leaving any spyware it has found. That's really about as complicated as it gets. The downside is that it can only scan for and detect spyware that it already knows about.

I do thoroughly recommend that you acquaint yourself with the web site of OptOut's creator, Steve Gibson. Steve is well-known and appreciated by many security conscious Windows users, for providing help and free security-related programs. There are a number of interesting features of his web site (http://.grc.com) beyond links to his OptOut program. He also runs a free service called Shields Up which will scan your computer and report on its security vulnerabilities. If you're new to and alarmed by some of these things, then that would be a great place to go to start learning and getting some protection.