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Are Your Children Safe from Spyware?

If you have kids, then the computer they use -- which may also be the computer you use -- is vulnerable to infestation by spyware. Spyware preys on the behavior of children, and teens in particular, by parking itself in the programs they download and on the sites they visit. Peer-to-peer music-swapping software, free online games, screen savers, song-lyrics sites are prime destinations for kids and many of them can carry an unwanted payload that can melt down a machine. But by teaching your kids appropriate behaviors and habits, and using some protective software, you can go a long way toward preventing spyware from gaining a foothold on your system.

Just how serious a threat does spyware pose? It can hijack your Web browser, barrage you with endless pop-up ads, slow your PC to a crawl, or crash it entirely. An adware-infested PC can become so slow and unstable that it turns into little more than an expensive desk ornament. In its worst forms, spyware known as dialers and keyloggers can force a modem to dial expensive toll calls or can capture every keystroke you make, putting confidential information from passwords to credit-card numbers at risk. Keyloggers are far more dangerous than adware and browser hijackers but, fortunately, much less common. Broadly speaking, spyware is software that infiltrates your computer without your informed consent and almost a with some negative consequence.

Internet Explorer storms of endless popup windows are a common symptom of spyware infestations.

What's more, a lot of spyware clutters up your system when it installs, won't let you control its behavior, and actively resists removal. In short, spyware is not something you want to let onto a PC in the first place unless everyone who uses the computer, dads, moms and kids, is prepared to accept the consequences.

One potential privacy threat that's sometimes lumped in the same category as spyware is tracking cookies. Unlike most spyware, though, cookies aren't programs that run on your computer; they're simply small data files that sites can ask your browser to save so that they can identify a returning user. Because some networks of sites do share cookies and use them for purposes like targeting ads in Web pages, cookies from some sources can be classified as a privacy threat. Most cookies, though, are innocuous, and cookies never present the same active dangers and inconveniences as spyware and adware programs.

Is Anywhere Safe?

First the good news - and there isn't much. We've found that high-profile sites aimed at young pre-schoolers and kindergarten-age kids, like Nick Jr. and pbskids.org, provide safe and spyware-free environments. Your children are safe here and spyware vendors seem to stay well away from these kinds of sites. Under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), children under 13 are legally treated differently than older children -- companies can't ask them to disclose any personal information. We surmise that possible legal action, highly protective parents that would fight back hard to protect their young children, and the potential for high profile public relations disasters keep spyware vendors from playing here.

Spyware Targets Older Children and Teenagers

However, older kids and teenagers seem fair game. The sites they frequent are often free on the surface but with a heavy spyware price to pay. More viral services such as peer-to-peer file sharing sites are "good" carriers because teens are densely interconnected and spread discoveries rapidly around their peer network. Free goodies are also appealing when you don't have a lot of disposable income and are influenced by peer pressure for conformity. Entertainment- and celebrity-oriented sites that teens might be inclined to visit can be particularly sketchy.

In fact, downloading any software from an unknown source is potentially unsafe. We've seen spyware bundled along with downloadable games, screen savers, emoticon packs, utilities, Flash animations -- you name it. In fact, some companies even sell software that claims to help control spyware but in fact installs spyware.

In general, companies that have a strong, established brand to protect, and a clear mechanism for generating revenue, seem to stay away from spyware. Sites outside of the mainstream and software that has no obvious way of supporting itself, by contrast, should raise more concerns -- as should sites that bombard you with pop-up ads, especially ones that employ scare tactics urging you to scan your computer.

Letís look at a few examples:

Free Peer-to-Peer

Are you prepared to cope with the consequences when your kids install peer-to-peer file-sharing software?

Free peer-to-peer file-sharing software like Grokster and Kazaa are hugely popular among older children and typically include adware, a fact that's disclosed in the long and wordy licensing agreements they display during the installation process. We doubt most people bother to read all the small print, instead clicking Yes to move through the screens as quickly as possible and get the software installed so they can begin using it. This is precisely one of the dangerous behaviors that you need to train your kids to avoid. Parents should consider paid versions of services like this but read carefully to make sure the paid product is indeed free of adware.

GAIN Carriers

Claria, the company behind GAIN adware, bundles its payload within ScreenScenes, a "free" screen saver, DashBar, a "free" search engine toolbar, WeatherScope, a "free" weather forecaster, and many other "expensive" free programs. By downloading these packages, available across the Internet, you become prey to numerous ads that in our experience start out annoying and can become crippling. We'd rather find ourselves in need of a jacket on a cold day than succumb to these electronic annoyances. Incidentally, GAIN is also bundled with many of the free peer-to-peer file sharing packages.

ZANGO Games

Another adware vendor, 180solutions, through its Zango division, creates games like "David vs. Goliath" and "Secret Chamber" that come with adware. Although the Zango sight mentions the targeted ads you will be receiving, most users will never visit the Zango site as the games are available from many free download sites like download.com and tucows where you may or may not see any warning at all.

Lyrics Sites

Music-lyric sites may trick your kids into downloading spyware.

Spyware is often delivered via an ActiveX control that you load in your browser. Music-lyrics sites seem to use this technique particularly frequently -- if you want to view the lyrics to a song, they'll insist that you download their ActiveX control first. It turns out this control has nothing to do with viewing lyrics, but is a deception that the site uses to convince you to download ad-serving software.

Everywhere Else

Finally, spyware doesn't always reach your child's PC through Web browsing: It can also arrive via any channel that can send files or Web pages, and many popular communication channels used by children including e-mail and instant-messaging file transfers. An attachment that promises to be a free screensaver or other interesting content could easily contain spyware.

These are just some of the spyware of the thousands of spyware traps that lurk on the Internet. In fact, it's safe to say that anywhere you find free entertainment, spyware is usually not more than a click away waiting for you to make a mistake.

No Free Downloads

Many computers get infected with spyware because users ask for it - although your kids probably didn't realize what they were getting themselves into. The urge to get something for nothing can be a huge temptation, and "free" software designed to entice kids often contains adware components that the publishers use to generate revenue.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to spot spyware until it's already installed -- and by then it can be too late. (With some spyware, you may not even know after it's installed, except indirectly when it affects performance and stability or you start observing unexpected behavior.)

But with some awareness of the patterns that characterize spyware, you can begin to see ways to make more informed decisions and to teach your children when caution is warranted. We believe that the more parents and their children know about adware, the more they'll see that these allegedly free downloads can be costly mistakes. Just as you protect your children in the real world by instructing youngsters never to get into a car with strangers, and teaching older children how to make decisions despite peer pressure, you can help protect your machine from spyware by instructing kids of all ages in safe surfing and downloading habits.

You can try to pin blame for the spyware scourge on spyware authors, a lack of government oversight, or plenty of other factors -- but ultimately, regardless of who's responsible, you have to step up as a parent and teach your kids how to behave responsibly when they're online.

Coming Up

In our next article, we'll discuss the habits and behaviors you can teach your children to avoid spyware, and the tools you can employ so they can exercise discretion in where they surf and what they download.

Robert P. Lipschutz is president of Thing 7 and the father of three children. John Clyman is president of technology consulting firm Narrative Logic, LLC, and a leading expert on anti-spyware software.

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