"Spyware" and "malware" are terms used to describe programs that are desgined to hide themselves on your computer and then send information about you and/or your computer usage habits back to the author of the software. Some of these programs are marginally legitimate, such as tools that provide you with special offers based on the kinds of web sites you visit. Others are outright illegal, often attempting to capture your passwords or information about your personal identity. Hackers using these tools may collect this information to try to break into your computer, or worse to try to impersonate you to open credit accounts, take out loans, etc.
By their nature, most pieces of spyware and malware are designed to get installed on your computer without your knowledge. They are often bundled with an attractive piece of free software, sometimes never mentioned at all except in the fine print of the license agreement. The illegal kind often get sent attached to spam mail or could get installed if you visit a website that tries to take advantage of vulnerabilities in your web browser.
If the theft of data problems were not bad enough, most spyware and malware programs are very poorly written (perhaps even on purpose), and so they will often interfere with normal usage of the computer they inhabit. One clear sign that your system has some form of spyware or malware is if you get directed to unintended web sites when you try to use the web.
Fortunately, there is something you can do to fight spyware and malware. Anyone who accesses the Internet for any reason should download and run a spyware detection and removal utility. These tools work much like virus scanners, except that they are designed to search for known spyware and malware programs.
There are a number of detection and removal tools out there, such as the following:
While Ad-Aware used to be free only for personal use and Spybot was free for all to use, Spybot is now free only for personal use, and it appears that 'Ad-Aware Free AntiVirus' is now free for anyone to use (though you should check the license with the download to make certain you are allowed to use it.) If you are looking for a utility to use on a state-owned computer (such as one in an office or a computer lab), please do not use Spybot unless you intend to pay for it (and verify in the license docs that it is okay to use Ad-Aware before installing it.)
Please also note that McAfee VirusScan is available through the OIT Software Website for all members of Georgia Tech (students, faculty, and staff) to use on office and home computers, and these days McAfee will likely provide as much protection against spyware and malware as the products listed above (this didn't always used to be the case.) If you are already runnning McAfee, we don't recommend that you install one of the above products without talking to your local computer support staff first.