Little brother's watching you

24th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

A recent survey found that over three quarters of computers in Belgium and the Netherlands are infected with spyware, viruses or other malicious programmes. We find out more.

The next time you log onto your bank's website to check the size of your overdraft, beware.

You're being watched

You could inadvertently be sending your personal financial details to an electronic mugger sitting comfortably in front of a computer screen on the other side of the world.

If your computer has been infected with a so-called 'spyware' programme it is possible that all of the numbers, letters and symbols you type on your keyboard are being silently recorded then dispatched to a cyber criminal via the internet.

The arrival of the world wide web has brought huge advantages to millions of people and opened up a whole new world of online communication, commerce and community – Expatica is a perfect example of the fruits of the online revolution.

But the internet has also brought with it new problems, particularly when it comes to protecting sensitive personal data.

Spyware is just one member of a family of malicious programmes that can infect the computers of unwary web users.

Other online nasties include viruses, internet worms, Trojan Horses and dialers, all of which in different ways can wreak havoc on computers.

The good news is that it is possible to protect your computer from the vast majority of these internet pests.

The bad news is that an awful lot of people do not seem to bother.

A recent survey carried out for internet security firm Symantec, which amongst other things makes the well known computer programme Norton Anti-Virus, this week found that over three quarters of computers in Belgium and the Netherlands – 76 percent to be precise – are infected with a malicious programme.

Of course, Symantec has a vested interested in making sure we are all scared witless of computer nasties.

If there were no viruses who'd buy their anti-virus programmes?

Nevertheless, the survey makes for worrying reading.

The study was based on a sample group of 200 internet users.

Spyware tops the 'nasty list'

Of the 76 percent found to have some sort of malicious software installed on their computers, 64 percent were infected by spyware programmes.

The findings confirm what many computer security analysts have been saying for some time now: spyware is the biggest single security menace facing today's internet users.

Get protected. Enjoy the surf

Next on the list of unwanted visitors came Trojan Horses, which were found on around a third (31 percent) of the infected computers.

Trojan Horses are malicious programmes disguised as harmless ones.

Unwary users install them thinking they are adding a piece of useful software to their computers.

But once ensconced on a hard drive, a Trojan Horse begins to carry out unauthorised actions like opening the computer's communications ports so that other malicious programmes can access sensitive data.

Just behind Trojan Horses on the hit parade of online nasties are dialers.

These programmes are similar to Trojan Horses but they are specifically designed to silently hook up a computer to expensive telephone services.

The first thing a web surfer often knows about the presence of a dialer on their machine is when he or she receives an astronomically large telephone bill.

Despite being perhaps the best known form of internet menaces, viruses and worms actually come relatively low down on the list of computer infections.

According to the Symantec study, just 14 percent of infected machines have a virus or worm.

The report's authors argue that this relatively low infection rate is due to the fact that people are more aware of viruses and worms than they are of other malicious programmes.

Viruses and worms can destroy data on your hard disks although most of the internet nasties currently doing the rounds infect e-mail address books, hoovering up the contact details of millions and millions of web users.

These lists of names are then sold to the unscrupulous online traders who fire billions of unsolicited and extremely annoying spam e-mails into the world's electronic in-trays.

What should you do?

Of course the only thing anyone except hard-nosed computer geeks really want to know about malicious computer programmes is how to get rid of them.

Unsurprisingly, Symantec's implicit answer to this question is, 'buy our products'.

Why else would have they gone to such lengths to both commission the survey and make sure it was written about in the mainstream press, say the cynics.

However, on this occasion most independent computer security experts would at least partly seem to agree with the software giant.

Whether or not you choose to buy Symantec products - which to be fair to the company do regularly receive good reviews in the independent computer press - is of course up to you.

But most experts agree that at the very least you should install both a reputable anti-virus programme and a properly functioning internet firewall on your computer before venturing out onto the web.

Firewalls can block access to and from your computer for any programmes except those that you specifically designate.

They are one of the best ways of ensuring that spyware doesn't arrive on your machine in the first place.

You should also make sure that all of your security programmes as well as your computer's operating system – for example Windows, Linux or MacOS – are up to date.

If this all sounds very complicated, it is actually fairly straight forward and once you have taken the basic steps to protect yourself you can once again enjoy worry free web surfing.

More Information

Read the full Symantec report (in French)

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Belgium, Netherlands, internet security, spyware

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