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90% of all machines infested? That's inflated and misleading - but the reality is bad enough.

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This is Leo Notenboom with news, commentary and answers to some of the many questions I get at askleo.info.

In recent months and weeks we've seen a number of reports that claim that that some frighteningly high percentage of computers examined at random are infested with spyware of some sort. Depending on the report, numbers quoted reach as high as 90 percent.

In my opinion reports that go that high aren't taking into account the severity of the threat, and typically include tracking cookies of some sort as "spyware". Technically, yes, I suppose they're spyware - but in my mind they're an acceptable cost of doing business on the internet. Certainly they're not in the same league as key loggers, browser hijackers, and other forms of true malware.

Reports that include cookies as spyware are doing us a disservice by overstating the problem. The average user, on hearing that number alone, may well throw up his or her hands in frustration, and believe that there's simply nothing to be done.

That's just wrong.

There is a spyware crisis. I hear about it every day. The number of machines infested with what I'd call "real" spyware is staggering. Even if it's as low as 25% - and I believe it's much higher - that's a phenomenal number of machines that are either collecting data, forcing ads, or causing other software to misbehave or fail completely.

Aside from convincing your friends, family and colleagues to move to Linux or Mac where the threat, while still present, is currently much lower, what do we do?

To start get those friends, family and colleagues to install anti-spyware software. I happen to recommend Microsoft's Anti-Spyware beta, but there are lots of good products out there, but really ... almost anything is better than nothing at all.

Get them to avoid "shovelware" - those software packages that install not only themselves, but shovel half a dozen other utilities, often without asking permission. Avoid services that do the same - things like ISPs that insist on installing their own "accelerators" and peer-to-peer services that come laden with spyware. Make sure that they know to download only from truly reputable locations, and above all to ask someone if they're not sure.

Yes, the spyware crisis really is bad.

It's been said that education shouldn't be the solution - in a working system, the users simply shouldn't have to think that much. But today education seems to be all we have.

And you and I are the teachers.

I'd love to hear what you think Visit ask leo dot info, and enter 9340 in the go to article number box. Leave a comment, I read them all.

This is a presentation of askleo.info, a free on-line technical question and answer service. Hundreds of questions and answers are online and ready to help solve your computer problems. New questions and answers are added daily.

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Article C2447 - October 27, 2005 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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4 Comments
Bill P. Godfrey
October 29, 2005 6:56 PM

No program (!) with the exception of the operating system and device drivers really need unfettered access to the computer's resources.

I'd like to see a world where all applications come in the form of something similar to flash or java applications. Just change the JVM so that the "Do you trust this one" dialogue doesn't appear and always defaults to no.

Death to the .EXE file!

Anthony
October 30, 2005 4:59 AM

In the past 2 weeks I've had 3 coworker's hard drives in my machine just getting them bootable again, they all use AOL. And somehow they've gotten the impression that AOL's browser is safer...trying to explain that it's just an overlay on IE is not easy. They all got their machines back w/ a fresh installation of Firefox among other things but who knows what they'll do, I need one of those T-shirts that says "No, I will not fix your computer."

Leo A. Notenboom
October 30, 2005 9:11 AM

LOL. You can get that shirt here: http://www.thinkgeek.com/tshirts/frustrations/388b/

April
October 30, 2005 1:33 PM

However you want to call these programs and however you want to list the statistics, more windows users are not "using" their computers or having full use of their computers, because something they did not install is taking up valuable resources and this is a shame. I use 5 computers at home and one computer at work every day and I don't have any problems. It's not relevant to mention that 4 of the computers are macs and 2 are pc's because even the pc's I run do not have problems. Why, because I don't have children. I know this is oversimplifying the problem, but most of my friends and coworkers who are experiencing problems have kids who use their computers and haphazardly download anything.

This is why all of the admonishments do not work for windows. I also have friend who have Macs and have kids and they do not have these problems. Restore points are the best solutions, but even getting people to understand and use them is difficult.

This is a shame because when you spend money on a product, and you can't use it because someone else's actions (spyware and the like) prevent it, it's stealing.

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