Your computer may contain software you don't want. If that isn't bad enough, that software might be sapping your computer's resources and slowing it down. Worst of all, this software might open you up to all sorts of legal hassles and headaches because it is being used to send spam or attack servers. Make sure you are protected by reading the guide below. Awareness is the first step to effective spyware control.
April 26, 2011
Malwarebytes Anti Malware Free is a Free Antispyware Software for Windows and created by Publisher Malwarebytes Corporation.
January 15, 2012
Spybot Search & Destroy is a Free Antispyware Software for Windows Computers by Publisher Safer Networking Ltd.
January 03, 2012
Lavasoft Ad-Aware Free is a Free Antispyware Software for Windows by Publisher Lavasoft Ltd.
Free Antispyware Software
How can Free Antispyware Software Help?
Anti-spyware software really only began to be needed by mainstream users when hackers discovered the security vulnerabilities of the Windows XP platform. There were earlier prototypes of spyware before the XP operating system's proliferation and market dominance, but it was really the market adoption of Windows XP that saw a tremendous rise in spyware. How come? The Internet's growth explosion coincided with the widespread adoption of Windows XP. Moreover, the earlier versions of Windows XP were susceptible to automated execution of remote code. This means that all you need to do to be infected by spyware is to go to a website and the attack code will automatically execute and install malicious software on your computer. There is no input needed on your part. With ensuing iterations of Windows XP's security packs, in particular security pack SP2 and later security packs, that operating system became more secure. Still comparatively the Windows operating system is less secure and more targeted by hackers than other operating systems like Linux or the Apple Macintosh OS platform.
Before we go into an in-depth analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of free anti-spyware software, we need to analyze first why users should get anti-spyware specific software instead of using an all-around anti-malware package or using an anti-virus.
Antispyware Protection Versus Antivirus Protection
The bottom line is that spyware programs are not viruses. Viruses are malicious software codes that are either injected into another files or made into standalone files that are triggered when you activate programs on your computer. When you use these programs, if the file is infected with a virus, the virus code will create copies of its self and will try to spread its self to your data files. Just like in human biology, the goal of the virus is to spread from computer to computer within a network very rapidly. It does this through data and file exchanges and when users share files online.
The many faces of spyware
Spyware, on the other hand, has forms that range all the way from seemingly legitimate-looking software to obviously malicious software. Spyware often tries to infect your computer through the front door. Instead of the back door methods used by viruses, spyware would normally involve loading a page and seeing some sort of application that your system is trying to install. In addition, it could try to pass itself for some sort of beneficial or useful tool which you then install.
Permission and Spyware
The core of a spyware originally is that many of them require user permission. It did not use to be this way. It used to be that before Windows caught on to automated downloads and installs, spyware did not need permission. All you need to do is go to an attack page and spyware would automatically be installed in your computer. With the beefed up versions of Windows recently, your system will almost always prompt you for your consent before you install anything on your computer. In previous iterations of spyware and even up to now, what makes them malicious is often concealed in the end user license agreement pop-up window that appears when you are installing a piece of supposedly legitimate software. Buried deep in the guts of the terms of conditions are really horrendous things that you are supposedly "consenting to."
Increasingly black and white situation
Some ridiculous examples of past spyware packages include consenting to turning your computer into communication network or in other words, a proxy server for a remote user to send spam through. As shocking as that may be, many end user license agreements for spyware software have these terms embedded in them. These were included as a cover against legal actions. Many early tool bars had a wide range of functionalities that you are supposedly giving your consent to. Thankfully those dark days of spyware development are over and it is more black and white nowadays. Black and white in terms of what is legally acceptable and what is not. Spyware that seeks to turn your computer into a zombie computer for spamming purposes has dispensed the end user agreements and just depend on security vulnerabilities to auto download and auto execute. On the other side of the equation, formerly gray spyware is now more transparent regarding the commercial nature of what they seek to do with your computer. Tool bars that have many advertising are quite straightforward and tend to stick with being the legitimate bounds of acceptable online advertising.
Increasingly lines of separation
As time goes by, the legitimate advertising software is no longer labeled spyware and spyware has by now been limited to truly malicious software that seeks to turn your computer into a spamming or illegal attack machine or black hat SEO support tool. This type of malady spyware almost always uses surreptitious and deceptive means or fully automated means to get your "consent" to install and operate this piece of malicious software.
Dealing Separately With the Risks of Spyware
As we mentioned in previous guides in ereviewguide.com, the costs incurred by users from the risks of spyware are quite heavy. We are not going to rehash those costs here. Instead, we will focus on how to manage the risks of spyware through anti-spyware protection. One key question is why would a user need separate spyware protection software from an anti-virus protection software? Just like in the offline world, you most likely get a higher degree of service dealing with a specialist than with a general practitioner. This is true for doctors and lawyers and is also particularly true when it comes to spyware and virus protection.
Why the need for anti-spyware specific security software?
Before we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of free anti-spyware software, we have to analyze why you need a spyware-specific package. The specialization that anti-spyware packages bring to the table makes them better than a bundled package because the developer's efforts are focused on a smaller set of the problem. Since they do not have a wide coverage of both spyware and anti-virus protection, it can go deeper into spyware detection, clean up and prevention. Another key reason why you should look into spyware specific programs to protect yourself against this type of malicious software is that viruses and spyware have different security profiles. As mentioned above, viruses spread in one particular form. They are packaged in their own particular way. Spyware, on the other hand, uses differing methods to spread and also differing methods to install and execute. Since security threat software is quite a complicated piece of software, it is much better if we just specialize towards one specific threat, and one specific mode of transmission and execution.
Another key reason why you should get a spyware-specific security package is because virus behavior is easier to stop. Spyware on the other hand relies on permissions and also notice. Specifically, if an anti-spyware program detects an update where specific software that was previously thought of as harmless is being reported as spyware by the community, then it would be proactive against that piece of software. There is delayed reaction based on particular spyware strains released over the internet. With viruses, it is a pretty straightforward proposition because something is either a virus or is not. Using a spyware-specific package gives you protection when navigating this particular situation.
Free Anti-spyware Software: To Install or Not to Install
Everybody likes free stuff. It is simply part of human nature. We avoid pain and we love pleasure. The same way digging deep into your pockets and pulling out a fistful of dollars to pay for software whether in a brick and mortar store or online is inconvenience that we would rather avoid. That explains the lure of free anti-spyware programs. However, as we discussed in our previous guide, there is no such thing as a free lunch. What you think is supposedly free software is actually paid software. The only difference from paid commercial software is that the cost of "free software" is not readily obvious. However, somebody somewhere at some time must shoulder the cost. Usually, the person shouldering the cost is you.
The shifting costs of “free” antispyware software
What are the costs of free anti-spyware software? The costs that are being shifted are that the users are bearing the risk of testing out the new anti-spyware application. This is probably because the developer is looking to release a more robust, proactive or complete version of the program later on. Another reason is users are helping to debug the software. In essence, you are the developer's guinea pig. Either way, by using free anti-spyware software, you are taking on a lot of the cost that a developer would normally have to shoulder. It costs a big amount of money to battle test a piece of software. It costs a huge amount of money to check if the software is actually working and doing its job. Either way, instead of hiring or outsourcing quality control staff, the developer has an installed base of free users to do the job for them.
In essence, free anti-spyware software operates on an underlying premise that there is a win-win situation among the developer and the installed base. Unfortunately, the sad reality is while the installed base of users do win in the very limited sense that they are getting free "software," the amount of risks both immediate and potential as well as the opportunity cost that they are undertaking makes the win-win situation weigh heavily towards the developer.
Risks to Free Anti-Spyware Software
As mentioned above, users are undertaking a lot of risks when they use free anti-spyware software. While obviously defective or obviously deceptive pieces of software are easy to spot and often quickly gain a bad reputation on the internet, users are undertaking a great risk with free anti-spyware packages that are either new or going through transitions or testing new features. The following list outlines the key risks you are shouldering when you are using free anti-spyware software.
1. No proactivity regarding new threats
Unlike branded and established commercial anti-spyware packages with huge installed bases, free anti-spyware packages do not really have an incentive to proactively find new threats. A lot of the time, this generic free software shares the same database. The problem with sharing the same spyware database is that the updates may be few and far between. There may be many new threats popping up all over the internet, but the updated database that your free software is using is from a few weeks back. A week or even a few days can mean the difference between using a clean computer and running a computer that is part of a zombie computer network or botnet.
Lagging updates make a big difference
Time is of the essence when it comes to spyware protection and with free anti-spyware packages, there is absolutely no built-in incentive since the developers are not making money off the software to proactively detect, find out or seek out new threats. Compare this situation with larger brand names in spyware technology. Most of these software developers would actually set up dummy accounts and set up servers that act as bait to lure attackers. They would then study these attack patterns and new software and update their internal database accordingly. They do not just rely on a public database that other developers use. They work actively on coming up with their own internal database.
2. No preventive features
Normally, a free anti-spyware package is quite a bare bones affair. You just get an application that runs your registry of installed software or sometimes runs through all your files to look for telltale signs of similarity with its list of proven spyware. If it finds a positive match, it could then prompt you to either delete or quarantine the piece of software. As you could tell by these bare bones operation, chances are quite high that you might be put in a position where the protection it affords you is too little to make.
Preventing problems instead of picking up the pieces afterward
Just like in human health, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is better to deal with problems before they occur and prevent them rather than deal with an infection. When it comes to anti-spyware software, preventive features are extremely important. Paid commercial anti-spyware packages have robust prevention features that not only compare code elements with an existing database, but they also use heuristic or other means to detect behaviors. Free anti-spyware software is often quite rigid in how it detects malicious or shady software.
Paid versions tend to use behavior-based models. If an application is behaving like spyware, then it would get that security software's attention and be dealt with accordingly. You just do not have that with free anti-spyware software because you are at the mercy of whether the applications you have on your computer matches a "ban list" of spyware. This process may not be proactive enough to prevent problems down the road.
3. There is less incentive to update the software engine
Updating the database list of spyware is one thing and upgrading the core engine of the anti-spyware program is another. While it is less costly to update the list of shady applications and spyware that your software is going to check for, it can be quite costly to put together a new engine especially if the upgrade involves new features or completely retooled segments of the code. Not all developers have the resources in terms of manpower, time and money to regularly update their engine. This is a major disadvantage of free anti-spyware software whereas paid commercial anti-software packages have the resources to do as many core upgrades as possible to adequately protect its install user base. Such resources are not usually available to free anti-spyware software developers.
4. Beware of developers with no track record
Time and time again, many "anti-spyware packages" that appear on the internet are actually themselves spyware. Hard to believe right? It happens quite a bit. It is actually part of an extortion scheme. It has been documented that free anti-spyware packages would appear and then they would "detect" threats which they then pop up a message or give you a message suggesting that you buy a specific software to deal with the threat. These fake anti-spyware programs even have affiliate programs where they encourage marketers the world over to push their shady product. Not only do you run the risk of being extorted, but you have no peace of mind regarding the actual "anti-spyware" product that you are buying will actually be effective against spyware. Be careful of developers who do not have an established brand or have a large install base. Do a search for the name of the company and the name of the product. You will see if you are dealing with a credible company or somebody that switches between product names. There are many shady operators that use a whole list of different company names and product names just to hide their extortion scheme. Do not fall for this trap.
5. Avoid being part of a risky user ecology
"User ecology" refers to the installed base of users utilizing the same software. Whenever there is a large group of people using the same type of software, the security risks increase. You can look no farther than the Windows environment to know how risky user ecology works. There are less virus for the Mac than the Windows operating system because there are less Mac users. That is the bottom line. The same analysis applies to free anti-spyware software. The more users use a particular free application, the higher the chance that hackers would study the software, try to reverse engineer its behavior and come up with a list of vulnerabilities. They would then code a spyware that can escape detection and other features of the free anti-spyware application. The larger the user base, the higher the probability of this threat. This is a very important and crucial risk that you are undertaking when you are opting for a free anti-spyware package.
The Bottom Line
Apply a cost-benefit analysis. Whenever you are greeted with "free packages," you have to always apply the cost-benefit analysis. However, in the case of free anti-spyware software, you have to factor in a third element. That third element is the risk involved. By running this analysis, you would put on one end of the equation the $29.95 to $149.95 savings that you get versus the cost of replacing your data, cost of having to clean your system or the cost of time and labor to reinstall communication drivers if spyware disables your communication settings. The next step is to factor in the risks involved and the sources of these risks. Unless you are using your computer primarily for surfing the internet and you are not creating any valuable files whatsoever and this particular unit is not your main computer, then it may make sense to go to the free anti-spyware route. Other than that, it is much better to stick with paid commercial anti-spyware titles.