Issue No. 06 - November/December (2004 vol. 21)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MS.2004.57
More and more everyday functions can be done online. I can shop, pay my bills, transfer funds between bank accounts, buy stock, and perform all manner of everyday business online. Not only does this save time in my already busy day, but it also contributes to a vibrant and healthy software industry because each of these applications needs someone to develop and maintain them.
Recently however, my friends and I have been inundated with spyware—applications that lurk in the background and capture everything from keystrokes to the URLs of Web sites I visit. While I'm obviously concerned about my personal information getting into others' hands, I'm equally concerned about the effect of widespread security threats such as spyware and viruses on the confidence of online users who, like myself, have started to do more and more of their everyday business online. Many people have already quit making online purchases because of such threats. How long will it be until a lack of confidence in Internet security will stall the strides that have been made over the past decade in establishing an online society?
Amazingly, even when the criminals who are helping bring down the Internet are caught, they're often given ridiculously light sentences. In some cases, they have even parlayed their criminal behavior into well-paying jobs. For example, as I write this, I just read an Agence France-Presse news story reporting that Securepoint, a German computer security company, has hired the accused (and self-confessed) author of Sasser—the worm that was responsible for infecting as many as 18 million computers and causing untold economic damage. There was even a fan club of sorts that was soliciting money for the worm's accused author ( http://support-sasser.homepage.dk).
There's no doubt: the Internet as we know it is in grave danger.
As I pondered these issues, Terry Bollinger, IEEE Software's past associate editor in chief for construction, was having his own encounters with spyware. I asked Terry to share his experiences and thoughts with you. I hope you find his tale as interesting as I did.
In His Own Words Terry Deals With Spyware
Despite having a very tightly configured system at home, somehow I was hit with a keylogger. Keyloggers are worse than having a high-resolution video camera focused on your keyboard because they're much more effective at capturing every key you enter. Fortunately, the software incarnations of these password-stealing critters aren't as transparent as the companies who make them claim. (Yes, they do sell them openly, to my amazement.) Symptoms of keylogger infestations include odd hesitations and pauses while you're doing simple operations such as typing text or opening and closing folders, although viruses and bugs in your operating system can also cause such behaviors.
Obviously, the consequences of home PCs getting hit with active keyloggers can be catastrophic. Do you do online banking? Have you entered a keyword to access your bank accounts lately? Would you be upset if you found your life savings missing the next time you log into your bank?
As you'd expect, I've changed a lot of passwords since my little visit from a keylogger. But the important part of my message is this: Even though I don't know how my PC got hit, I know almost exactly when it happened based on earlier checks and an instant-start identification of the problem. My system probably nailed the keylogger before it had a chance to do any serious damage. (I changed my passwords anyway.)
Are you curious about how my system caught the keylogger so quickly?
Competing for Your Trust
How can I be so sure I caught it early? Because I used a trio (now a quartet) of spyware checkers that collectively gave me a much higher level of trust than would be possible if I'd been relying on only one checker.
But why use three or four? Wouldn't it be easier just to use one that seems to work well? It would be easier, yes—but not necessarily safer. The real problem is this: How do you construct a reasonable case for trust when your sources aren't fully certified, as is often the case in leading-edge software products such as virus checkers?
Although by no means a total solution, my own approach was simple: Seek help from diverse sources and let them check each other out just as thoroughly as they check out my system. The result is a competition to be honest, in which unethical behavior by a member of the checker community is likely to be screamed about from the highest housetops by their competitors. These vendors are competing in a market where trust is a substantial part of what they're selling.
My multitool strategy benefited substantially from the fact that three of the tools were free for home use and the fourth was quite cheap. Cost counts, and ultra-low costs enable strategies that might not be practical for large, costly systems. Also, during the selection process itself, running multiple spyware checkers is a great way to get an idea of who might be a "wolf in sheep's clothing," as some spyware pretends to be spyware checkers. The advantages of cross-checking extend into operational use: if any one of the group goes bad for whatever reason, cross-checking makes it easier for the other tools (and you) to notice the transition.
Make Vendors Compete for Your Trust
To decide on the four programs, I used them to see what they could find out about my system and each other. There were some revelations. For me, the most unpleasant surprise was that my top-end, professional Internet security and antivirus package sat like a stony statue on its pricey pedestal, refusing to say anything significant about the goings-on. Keyloggers? No problem! After all, they're not viruses—just little tools for taking over systems directly, without having to bother with the hassle of writing a virus.
That experience taught me a lesson about relying too much on tool reputations as my primary criteria for trust and system safety. I'm now convinced that it's a lot better to keep a variety of similar applications engaged in a constant knock-down, drag-out brawl, so that none of them can start getting sloppy without the others taking notice.
The other lesson is more ominous: If you use a standard PC, you really, really should do some spyware checks, and soon. If you are trusting in antivirus software and firewalls alone, you're going to be sadly let down. You could find, as I did, that you can have a fully virus-free system that's so bloated with resource-hogging adware that on a good day it works like a turtle and on a bad day it doesn't work at all.
A SPYWARE DETECTOR QUARTET
By now you're wondering what quartet of tools I selected, so here they are. A word of caution: watch out for similar names. Several products try to fool people into thinking they're another product, and some of those products are themselves spyware. Check the names and sites for exact matches before downloading any of these products.
Spybot Search & Destroy
This is THE free spyware checker right now and a must for finding spyware. It's remarkably fast and the most thorough of all the checkers I tested. (Each spyware checker finds some spyware that the others do not, no matter how thorough they are.)
Be sure to use the URL below for this one, as there's a product that has spoofed this real one in prominent ads. The spoof product is shabbily, even dangerously done (it tries to delete nonspyware files), and it tries to con you into paying money when the real and tremendously more effective product is free.
Spybot Search & Destroy has an optional feature called Tea Timer. If you don't mind being interrupted occasionally by alerts about suspicious activities, this is a powerful and useful feature to activate. It warns you immediately if a program is trying to change critical entries in your registry. If you suspect your system has been compromised, activating Tea Timer is a must, as it can help you identify and isolate the source of your problems. (True geeks: Check out FileAlyzer and RegAlyzer at the same URL.)
This is my most recent addition. Unlike the others, it's not a scanner but rather a roadblock to keep a huge range of spyware from getting into your system in the first place. You only need to run it once to get the blocking effect, although it's wise to update weekly to add blocks for new spyware.
An outstanding way to complement SpywareBlaster is to use a more conservative and more rigorously standards-compliant browser, such as the recently released, free Firefox 1.0PR browser ( www.mozilla.org/products/firefox). This surprisingly powerful and easy-to-use browser locks out many problems in its default configuration and can be made safer and even more specific by settings for it from SpywareBlaster.
Lavasoft Ad-Aware SE Personal Edition
This is free for personal use but requires a fee for commercial use. It's thorough, but considerably slower than Spybot S&D and thus might be more appropriate for overnight checks if you have many files. Ad-Aware seems to go deeper into the registry and file structures, so it sometimes catches things the other checkers miss.
Webroot Spy Sweeper
A free trial is available, but this one does cost a modest amount of money—and in my opinion, it's well worth it. For example, Spy Sweeper has some useful shields that warn you instantly when a piece of software is trying to install something into your startup files. If you install Spy Sweeper and then download and install some of the more popular free multimedia players, you can watch as the multimedia installer tries multiple times to plant a hidden boot-time startup program on your computer without first asking for your permission. It's enlightening.
Maximizing Multitool Benefits
I should also mention two process issues for maximizing spyware checkers' effectiveness.
First, when you download checkers, be sure to keep copies of them around, such as on a CD. Why? Because some forms of spyware try to shut off spyware checkers, just as some viruses try to shut off virus checkers. If a checker seems to stop working for no apparent reason, reinstall it, perform a fresh scan, and see what you find.
Second, if you've never done spyware checks before, I strongly recommend taking the time and effort to perform complete system scans using all the active scanning tools of the quartet: Spybot S&D, Ad-Aware, and Spy Sweeper. If all three find spyware, it's a good idea to repeat the cycle until they find no further hits or traces.
We welcome letters from those of you who find spyware infestations with any of these tools. If you find interesting, ominous, or surprising hidden spyware problems in your system, please let us know about them. Write to us at warren.harrison@ computer.org and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Terry Bollinger is an IT analyst at Mitre. His research interests focus on applying technology to large, complex software systems and networks. He received his MS in computer science from the University of Missouri at Rolla. He is the primary author of the Software Construction section of Version 1.0 of the international IEEE Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (Swebok) standard. He was an IEEE Software editorial board member and associate editor in chief (software construction). He received the IEEE Millennium Medal for his many years of service to the software community. Contact him at 7515 Colshire Dr., McLean, VA 22102-7508; email@example.com.