Considering those findings, chances are quite good that these security risks have found their way onto computers inside your organization. Spyware and adware not only clog up and slow down computers - they also can collect information about an individual or organization without their knowledge and use it for malicious purposes, such as identity theft. While all eyes are currently on the government to see what effect recent legislation will have against spyware and adware, there are some things you can do to keep these security risks from affecting your computers.
Distinguishing among the risks
Spyware and adware are in the same threat family as spam and phishing, a family that Symantec classifies not as attacks, vulnerabilities, or malicious code, but as "additional security risks." Although spyware and adware are often used interchangeably, they have distinctly different characteristics:
• Spyware is a stand-alone program installed on a computer that can capture information stored on the computer, as well as Internet usage patterns, and relay it back to a third party. In some cases, spyware is intentionally used by corporations to monitor employee Internet usage or by parents to monitor their children's Internet activities. However, it may also represent less legitimate applications. Spyware programs can be surreptitiously placed on users' systems in order to gather confidential information such as passwords, login details, account numbers, and credit card details. This can be done through keystroke logging and by capturing email and instant messaging traffic. Because spyware can capture sensitive information before it is encrypted for transmission, it can bypass security measures such as firewalls, secure connections, and VPNs that may be in place. Spyware is a particular concern because of its potential use in identity theft and fraud.
• Adware refers to programs that display advertising content on a user's monitor, often without the user's prior consent or explicit knowledge. It is usually, but not always, presented in the form of pop-up windows. Adware is not necessarily a security risk. In some cases, it simply delivers an advertising message that appears on the user's screen. However, there are also many forms of adware that compromise the confidentiality, availability, or integrity of data on a computing system. This can be done by tracking and compiling a profile of a user's browsing habits (which can occupy excessive bandwidth, thereby diminishing the functionality and availability of a computing system), or by modifying the computer's settings in order to monitor the user's Web browsing habits.
Is help on the way?
As the general population becomes more aware of spyware, adware, and other cyber security and identity theft threats, many are looking to the federal government to become more accountable on these issues. A survey published in June by the Cyber Security Industry Alliance polled 1,003 likely voters from both Republican and Democratic parties and found a consensus that the federal government needs to do more to protect consumers on the Internet.