I got a phone call the other day from an old school friend, someone that I haven't seen in years. He told me that he'd just quit his job and started his own business. He pointed me towards his website www.bughunt.co.uk, and asked me to take a look at it. After having a brief nose around, I told him that not only was his new business a good idea, but also a very necessary one. Basically, the idea of his business is to, for want of a better word, "disinfect" computers. Now I'm sure that there are loads of you out there thinking "that's what anti-virus software is for", and to a certain degree you'd be right. However, these days there is far more to worry about than just the malicious viruses that Norton, McAffee and Sophos catch for you. There's a new breed of infestation in innocent peoples' computers, loosely referred to as spyware.
I'm pretty sure that a great many of you reading this will be well aware of spyware, and some will already be taking steps to avoid infection and kill infestations, but there are also a great many computer users that have no idea about spyware. Basically, just by using the Internet, you could be opening your PC up to an infestation of spyware designed to do anything from recording how many times you come back to a website, to tracking every single website that you visit. But for me, the most frustrating incarnation of spyware is the browser hijack.
Browser hijacking is becoming more and more common, and the vast majority of average PC users have no idea how to deal with it. All they know is that one day their browser opens at one page and the next day it's opening somewhere completely different. But don't think that it's only PC novices that fall foul of browser hijacking, I found myself tearing my hair out trying to wrestle my browser back from the "Cool Web Search" hijack. No matter how many times I tried to configure my home page, it would always revert to the "Cool Web Search" page instead.
You realise just how big this problem is when you have a look around the web for ways to stop it. Not only are online forums just full to the brim with victims of browser hijacking, but there are already downloadable utilities available to combat the problem. In the case of the Cool Web Search hijack, there's actually a specific utility available in order to disinfect your machine, called "CWShredder". Unfortunately the Cool Web Search hijacker is constantly evolving, and therefore utilities like CWShredder have to evolve in order to keep up. Because of this I was stuck with the CWS browser hijack for a couple of weeks, before a version of CWShredder finally killed it off.
Another great weapon in the fight against spyware is AdAware from Lavasoft. This little utility will search through your hard disk and look for any spyware, data miners or browser hijacking processes and delete them. Again though, you can tell how bad the problem is by the fact that you'll often find several updates for AdAware in a single week. Spybot Search & Destroy is a similar utility that will hunt out and kill off a multitude of known spyware processes. As with any security utility, it's important to keep these programs up to date, so every time you run them make sure that you check for updates.
Of course, getting rid of infection is only half the battle, it's making sure that you don't get infected again that's the key. This is why it's vitally important to download all the Microsoft critical updates, even if you're on a slow connection, it's worth the time and the effort. Unfortunately, in the case of the CWS hijack, it was the Microsoft Java Virtual Machine that allowed the infection in the first place, so it's worth either manually removing this and replacing it with the Sun JVM, or installing Windows XP Service Pack 1a or 2, both of which do not use the MS JVM.
It's a sad state of affairs that computer users have to spend so much time and effort trying to protect themselves, especially since IT novices tend to already be paranoid as far as online security goes. And I guess this is where my friend's new business venture comes in. He's well aware that the most basic computer users wouldn't have the knowledge, time or inclination to wage war against the hordes of spyware, so, given the choice they'd rather get someone else to do it.
Whether he'll make a success of the business depends entirely on how many computer users even realise that they have a problem with their machine. Even novice users should be able to tell when their PC slows down because there are loads of processes running in the background, but whether it will occurr to them that there's some kind of infection is another matter. They might just assume that their system is getting old and that it's time to upgrade, and ultimately, it's this kind of behaviour that the spyware authors are counting on.
The Internet is one of the most important technological developments of recent times, and it really does bring the whole world closer together. It's just a real shame that there seems to be no end of issues for users, especially novice users, to worry about. Whatever you do with your computer, it's worth taking the time to make sure that it's not getting up to anything behind your back. Whether you download and use utilities like AdAware or Spybot Search & Destroy, or whether you enlist the services of a company to clean up and safeguard your machine, you need to make sure that the only person making use of your computer is you.