Spyware stoppers target biz networks

Spyware has become such a big problem at Scott & White Hospital that the organization is drawing up plans to drastically restrict its staff’s Internet access.

“The biggest issue we’ve got is spyware, the malware that comes down through subversive Web pages,” said Steve Raynes, IT audit manager for the Temple, Texas, health care company.

Spyware not only clogs PCs used for patient care but sometimes redirects Web pages to alternate sites. The 7,000-person staff is already banned from accessing gambling and pornography Web sites via filtering software, and Raynes said Scott & White is contemplating adding online shopping to that list to avoid spyware infections.

Raynes is “desperate” for anti-spyware software with the kind of reporting, automated updates, group policies, quarantine and remote configuration seen in anti-virus products. “I can’t find it,” he said.

Until recently there were no anti-spyware products designed with large networks in mind — only stand-alone consumer software or freeware. But consumer-oriented anti-spyware products from Computer Associates International Inc. (which recently acquired anti-spyware maker PestPatrol), Tenebril Inc. and Webroot Software Inc. are getting beefed up for enterprise networks.

CA next week plans to unveil eTrust PestPatrol 5.0 in packages designed for consumers and for small and large businesses. The corporate edition initially will feature a central console. Later, CA plans to integrate the anti-spyware program with its anti-virus software management controls.

Aluria Software, Giant Company Software Inc., McAfee Inc. and Sunbelt Software Inc. say they intend to announce anti-spyware software for enterprise networks, too.

While IT managers are certain to welcome the growing number of choices, one issue that buyers face is that each software vendor defines spyware a little differently and tout wide-ranging numbers of signatures — anywhere between 20,000 to 200,000 — to target spyware files that end up on computers. That means there’s no easy way to compare these products.

“There are no common definitions for the industry,” said Josh Blanchfield, CEO of Tenebril.

However, most vendors seem to agree that spyware includes adware used for marketing purposes in addition to malicious Trojans and key-loggers.

McAfee prefers to not even use the word spyware because some online marketing firms, including Claria Corp., which makes the Gator eWallet and other software for targeted ad presentation, bristle at the term. McAfee uses the term “potentially unwanted programs” instead.

The anti-spyware industry operates with each vendor deciding which adware or Trojan that ends up on a computer should be wiped out based on an assessment of what’s good and bad.

Sometimes the definition of what’s good or bad changes overnight. Aluria, which plans to expand beyond consumer anti-spyware into the corporate market by February, last week generated criticism by saying it would no longer detect and eradicate adware from WhenU.com, which is an adware company whose software provides customers with information on bargains and online savings by examining keywords, URLs and search terms favored by the user..

“They stopped their ActiveX and drive-by downloads,” explains Rick Carlson, Aluria’s president. Aluria’s approach is to evaluate spyware according to its own standards for consumer protection, he said.

If an adware firm changes its practices, it can be considered legitimate and not subject to detection and eradication. Aluria now feels so comfortable with what WhenU is doing that the two have signed a joint marketing deal.

One vendor getting into the anti-spyware market intends to leave it up to system administrators or end users to decide what to eradicate, keep or quarantine. Sunbelt, which makes a range of management and utility products, including LanHound and iHateSpam for Exchange, next week is expected to introduce its CounterSpy line of anti-spyware products for corporate and consumer customers.

While it’s unclear which method will catch on, demand for corporate anti-spyware offerings is clearly on the rise. Jared Winter, the PC and LAN supervisor at Western United Insurance in Irvine, Calif., said he had to find a tool after spyware brought his company’s imaging system to its knees. He uses CA’s PestPatrol.

“Some of the spyware was downloading viruses,” he said. “So I’ve found using anti-spyware is some help against viruses, too.”

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