Predator Software; Learn How to Defeat Viruses, Worms

Article excerpt

Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

George Washington University professor Lance Hoffman compares the current Internet climate to his earliest days behind the wheel.

"When I learned to drive a car, there were no air bags or seat belts," says Mr. Hoffman, a computer science professor at the Foggy Bottom university. Enough accidents happened that the safety devices soon became a reality.

"We're in the no-seat-belt age of the Internet. We don't even have drivers licenses," Mr. Hoffman says. "That will change."

Proof of that is the continued onslaught of what some call malware, or malicious software.

These foul Web dangers include viruses, worms and other programs designed to tie up computer users' Web surfing, or let others peek at where their Internet travels lead.

The term malware has been around for several years, says Mr. Hoffman, editor of the book "Rogue Programs: Viruses, Worms, and Trojan Horses."

A particularly insidious strain has been dubbed spyware. These programs install themselves on a computer either without the user's knowledge or because he or she inadvertently agrees to install them.

Spyware gathers information on the user, including his or her surfing habits or personal information such as passwords and e-mail addresses, and sends it back to the company controlling the spyware.

For advertisers, the information lets them program highly targeted advertising and is called adware. Should a computer user spend his days researching hot rods, for example, the next pop-up advertisement he sees could be from a used-car dealership.

More nefarious spyware might capture a user's personal information via "keylogging," a type of spyware that records every keystroke made.

One of the best ways to protect oneself is to bone up on the latest Internet and virus news. Sites such as www.getnetwise.org offer solid information toward that end, Mr. Hoffman says.

"You shouldn't have to read a manual to learn this," he says. "There's a lot of good information on how-to-protect-my-privacy laws."

At the minimum, he suggests downloading some free software programs. They can help protect those who otherwise aren't aware of how complicated Web surfing can be.

"Nothing is perfect, but you'll be in much better shape," he says. "In general, the average person is getting smarter, but we've got a ways to go. We're a pretty trusting people."

Gerry Sneeringer, an IT security officer at the University of Maryland, says computer users themselves are to blame for some of the spyware running on their systems. They just don't know it.

"Most of the adware you agree to put on the computer," Mr. Sneeringer says. Many Web users have gone to a commercial site or signed up for a product where, at one point, he or she is confronted with a long page of "legalese" to be accepted or denied.

Sometimes, Mr. Sneeringer says, amid the fine print is material stating that by clicking "I accept," the user agrees to let adware operate on the computer.

"It seems to have come to the forefront in the last couple of years," he says of this practice. "Many people don't know [about it] unless they run spyware software. It stays in the background and doesn't use a lot of bandwidth."

Another way for Internet users to make sure they don't surf onto a duplicitous site is to look at the line of text at the bottom of their monitors when they pass the cursor over a link. …