Spyware is not, sadly, the white tuxedo that James Bond wears whenever he goes out on a mission to stop a supervillain from using a diamond-powered satellite laser to destroy the world’s nuclear arsenal. It’s an incredibly sinister form of software that secretly installs itself on people’s computers without their knowledge, usually after they inadvertently click on a link or open a webpage. The result is slowed operating systems, altered computer settings, and television surveys that absolutely will not go away until the person tells them how much they like “CSI: Terra Haute”.
The dangers of spyware are far greater than hair pulled out and countless hours wasted, however. Keyloggers can be used to record a user’s keystrokes, so an unscrupulous hacker can steal passwords and credit card numbers. The spyware exploits security weaknesses in vulnerable computers to send out the information to anyone who knows where to look for it. Another kind of spyware targets modem users by switching the phone number they dial to a premium one that is oversees, resulting in phone bills that roughly equal the GNP of a small Latin American country.
Perhaps the most insidious form of spyware is the kind that tries to sell the user anti-spyware software. An infected computer begins receiving annoying pop-up ads and has their homepage redirected to a dubious site that informs them that their system has been compromised, and states that this unfortunate situation can be remedied by installing the Trust-Us-Not spyware software. Not too surprisingly, this often renders the computer even more inoperable, until they reach the point where they have to format the hard disk and start over from scratch.
Not that the author is bitter, mind you.