How would you feel if a stranger was observing you as you window shopped at the mall? What if a store manager followed you around with a notebook and wrote down everything you put in your cart? If you’ve surfed the Web lately, it’s likely there are hidden files on your computer designed for these purposes.
In reality, advertising companies have been tracking our shopping behaviors for years. How many times have you given your phone number to a cashier or answered questions on a sweepstakes entry form? If you read the fine print of your credit card terms of service, you’ll probably find that the company assumes the right to share information about your buying habits and credit history with their “business partners.”
Companies doing business on the Web are no different. They are keenly interested in finding out about the Web pages you visit and the online purchases you make.
One common Internet tracking device is a “cookie,” a small data file that is stored on your computer when you visit a Web site. The file tells the company which pages you’ve visited on their site, any selections you’ve made, and any information you’ve entered in form fields.
Cookies have been in use for years and are usually harmless. In fact, they are often necessary for online shopping carts to make calculations based on your item selections. Cookies also allow you to access your online banking service and favorite e-stores without identifying yourself each time you visit. Even so, most Internet browsers give you some control over whether you want to allow cookies to be stored on your computer.
Spyware is a more insidious form of Internet tracking. Spyware is software that is installed on your computer without your knowledge and has no purpose other than to watch you surf the Web. Every time you turn on your computer, the spyware program runs quietly in the background, sending statistical information about the sites you visit and the links you select back to a tracking server.
Since spyware is actually a small piece of computer code—often poorly written computer code, it also can cause technical problems. If you’re having trouble connecting to the Internet, experiencing computer lock-ups, or getting frequent software errors, spyware may be the culprit. And, since spyware sends and receives information over your Internet connection, your computer may be left vulnerable to hackers.
Unfortunately, most anti-virus software and even many popular personal firewalls don’t prevent spyware from being installed on your computer. Check with your anti-virus or firewall publisher to see when spyware protection will be integrated with the software you use. In the meantime, there are several products available that you can use to protect yourself.
SpywareBlaster (available at www.javacoolsoftware.com) is a freeware program that won’t remove existing spyware from your computer, but it will prevent it from being installed in the first place.
If you have been on the Internet recently, it is very likely that your computer is already infested with a number of these spyware programs. Therefore, you might consider Spybot, another freeware program that will scan your hard drive, remove any detected spyware, and protect your computer from future infestation.
Ad-Aware by Lavasoft (www.lavasoftusa.com) is another excellent program for detecting and removing spyware. Lavasoft offers a free version and an enhanced version for $26.95.
One small caveat: the anti-spyware software programs available today can’t protect you from future variations of spyware. As with your computer operating system, anti-virus, and security programs, you should routinely visit the Web site of the anti-spyware software you use and check for updates.
(Author’s note: Please consider making a donation to the author of any freeware product you decide to use.)