Did you ever wonder why you get certain e-mail solicitations from companies or individuals you don't know and not others? It's possible that someone has been surveying your activities online without your knowledge, and has used the information they've collected about the websites you visit and what you do on those websites to determine that you might be a prospective customer of theirs.
To collect and analyze this data, they use a relatively new breed of software known in the trade as "Spyware". Sadly, this is not a paranoid fantasy or an Oliver Stone film. There are unethical direct marketers who use information in this manner in an attempt to target customers fitting a certain profile (balding men over age 40 who golf, for example, might visit certain websites that single women age 25 who just graduated law school would have no interest in.)
What is Spyware?
Spyware is ANY SOFTWARE which employs a user's Internet connection in the background (the so-called "backchannel") without their knowledge or explicit permission (Definition courtesy of Steve Gibson at Gibson Research Corp.).
Spyware makes use evil, ingenious use of several technologies invented for benign purposes. When you log onto a website such as that of The New York Times, and you register there with a username and password, you can opt to have the website "remember" your user name and password so that you won't have to re-enter that information just to tell their delivery service that your paper didn't arrive today (without having to wait on hold for 15 minutes), and get your account credited accordingly. What's going on "under the hood" when you record that information for use upon your return to a given website, is that the information you entered is stored in a "cookie"-a very small file left on your computer that the New York Times website automatically looks for. If it sees that file, it saves you the trouble of having to enter (or remember) your username or password for the New York Times' website. Since many sites now require a username or password, it is likely that they too are using cookies. In the past few years, someone figured out how make use of data found in other companies' cookies. (Sounds like the plot for a baker/spy novel, doesn't it?).
Your web browser can be an amazing source of information to anyone who wants to parse through it. Unless you tell your browser otherwise, it makes and stores on your computer a copy of every page you see on the web, and leaves a "trace" of where you've been. All someone has to do to make use of that information is look for it. If you've ever bookmarked a site (listed it as one of your "Favorite Places" on the web), Spyware can analyze that as well.
So, if you've visited a website for California wines in the past 2 weeks, and then went to a website shopping for cheese, and then went to another website specializing in caviar, don't be surprised if you get an e-mail message soliciting a subscription to "Gourmet Food" magazine, even if you never asked to be on their mailing list.
Are those the only things Spyware does?
Not by a long shot. The more recent crop of Spyware could be included in a benign piece of software you use regularly. There is one type which logs every file you get from a website if you use certain commercial software products to ease downloading, and gives the referring website and the company that made the download software access to all the information about your IP address (that's your address for using anything on the internet), your e-mail address, and the names of the files you downloaded. It's explained very well in this article. Other Spyware enclosed in products include all of RealNetworks' products. RealPlayer sends information back to its developers about what news, music or other internet-broadcasts you listen to. There is proposed legislation to make Spyware explicitly illegal. Check it out at in this article.
The best tool you can have in this "Information Age" is information.
How can I keep my guard up against Spyware?
There are several products available to help innocent web surfers to keep their anonymity online. One of them is AdAware. It's free, and it's available here. Gibson Research Corporation is currently developing a spyware product called OptOut. The free version of OptOut is available now for download, and only guards against certain types of Spyware. We project based on a long history of fabulous, well-developed products from Gibson Research, that OptOut will be just as wonderful as all the other products Gibson has released so far.
AdAware searches and safely removes a very wide variety of spyware from your system, while keeping your cookies (for sites you visit often and which require a username and password) intact. We know that this technology may seem very confusing and frightening. We're here to answer any questions you have about this or any related issue. Write to us. Let us know what you're thinking about this issue.