welcome to techville

Learn Stuff

Bandwidth bandits (spyware)

If you're like most folks, you connect to the Internet with an "old fashioned" dial-up modem - not a high-speed broadband connection.

This means that, depending on your type of modem and the quality of the phone lines in your neighborhood, your connection speed is probably somewhere between 36k and 50k. (Even though most modems are rated at 56k, they're still restricted by the capabilities of the typical phone line that they use). Even at 50k the web can be frustratingly slow, and at slower speeds it can be absolutely infuriating. Imagine discovering that the little speed you have was being pilfered by "rogue" programs that use your bandwidth without your knowledge.

Which takes me to a long, long afternoon I spent last month working on the computer of a close friend of our family. Her PC reported that it was connecting at a healthy speed of 40k, but it felt more like 10k!  

Three hours later, after removing various pieces of "spyware" as well as other programs that were stealing her bandwidth, and then repairing parts of Windows that the spyware had corrupted, her connection felt like it was running three or four times faster.

What happened? And could it also be happening to you too?

Nibbling away at your bandwidth

Most people use their Internet connection to check e-mail, browse the web, and perhaps run Instant Messaging programs to have online "chats" with their friends.

However, there are also programs on your PC that use the connection for their own purposes. Sometimes it's for a good reason, like an antivirus program that checks to see if it needs to update itself in order to protect you against the latest viruses. The more cooperative ones will let you know before they borrow some of your bandwidth, giving you the opportunity to tell them not to use the connection while you're busy with it.

But sometimes there are nefarious programs, called spyware, running on your computer that you don't even know about. These programs typically watch your web browsing habits and then report those habits to the programs' creators, usually so that advertising can be better targeted at you.

Where are these programs?

You may be looking at your screen wondering, "Where are these 'bandwidth bandits?' All I see are the programs that I've intentionally started."

Well, they can be hidden in a number of places. The most obvious place you'll see them is on the Windows taskbar. Most of the helpful, "normal" programs, like antivirus programs and instant messaging, will show themselves here.

Of course, malicious spyware programs aren't going to voluntarily make their presence known, so they don't show themselves in the taskbar.

To see them, you'll have to use the famous DOS/Windows key combination of CTRL+ALT+DEL. If you have a DOS-based version of Windows, such as Windows 95, 98, or ME, you'll immediately see a barebones list of all the programs that are running. With Windows NT, 2000, or XP, you'll first see a choice of buttons. Click the Task Manager button, and then the Processes tab. Now you'll see the list of all programs.

The problem is, the names listed for these programs are not exactly "friendly." Many have vague names such as svchost.exe, (which is actually a component of Windows).  The trick is to determine which are legitimate, and which, if any, are spyware. To find this out on your own, search the web for their names. One good site for this is www.linutilities.exe.

However, the easier way to check for, and remove, spyware is to use a special utility. To download one of the better known utilities, use these websites:   

Or if you'd rather not download programs from the web, just stop by your local computer or office-supply store to purchase a utility that you can install from a disk.

An ounce of prevention

Of course, the best way to keep all of the bandwidth for yourself is to avoid being infected by spyware in the first place, and to also be very judicious about which "legitimate" programs you run that also use bandwidth.

Many spyware programs are sneakily installed along with shareware that has been downloaded from the web. Two typical types of shareware to be especially suspicious of are web browser add-ons (programs that change how the web browser behaves), and file-sharing programs, which are usually used for downloading music.

Spyware can also be installed when you're just trying to browse a website, and suddenly a window pops up that asks if you want to "install and run" a special program that your browser needs in order to view that site. Two common examples of this are the (legitimate) programs that run Flash animation or display PDF (print) files. Point being, if you don't recognize the program that the website wants you to install, don't do it.

Guarding the gate

Finally, you can monitor all of the communication in to, and out of, your computer by running a firewall. The firewall will ask you which of the programs are, and are not, allowed to communicate over your Internet connection. This lets you be the "gatekeeper" of your computer. One well-known free one is ZoneAlarm, available at www.zonelabs.com.

Control your destiny

The bottom line is to be aware of all the programs running on your computer that use your bandwidth, and to eliminate the ones that you don't want or need. It will make for a much more pleasant, and productive, web surfing experience.

Register  |  Login