Yet another IS headache

The focus of one of our main news stories this week is something that has made its unwelcome presence felt quite strongly on corporate networks in the last half year or so: spyware. These small files automatically and usually unknowingly downloaded onto users’ computers while surfing the Web are not only causing many an end-user’s fist to slam into their keyboards; they’re also giving network managers and administrators major headaches.

It used to be that such programs mainly took the form of cookies, small files deposited on a hard drive by various sites that allowed surfers to quickly tap into whatever resources the site offered upon subsequent visits. When they first started appearing in abundance, the common response from the IT community was to gripe about the imposition they made on the network and a potential invasion of privacy.

Today, given the much more malicious scenario presented by spyware, such concerns seems almost trite. When you think about it, the early days of cookiedom were really quite polite and considerate. Users were usually asked whether they wanted a cookie downloaded onto their machine before it was slapped onto the hard drive. How courteous things were in the good ol’ days.

These days, the only warning signs most of us get that ne’er-do-well code is being harnessed to our machines like barnacles to a ship is an unusually long spasm of hard-drive whirring as the mites infest themselves into our PC environment. Many times, the dastardly deed is completed before we even knew what happened, leaving our machine polluted and often temporarily out of service.

In some of its worst incarnations, spyware acts as an open window into our systems, revealing our activity to prying eyes looking to push advertising and spam based on whatever territory of the Internet we happen to be traversing. Other times, it’s simply designed to act as an irritant bent on slowing systems down to a crawl.

Now that spyware has established itself so effectively as a networking hazard, the primary effect it has on corporate IT troubleshooters is similar to that of other computing roadblocks. It means that network administrators have one more set of remedy programs of which they have to be aware and with which they have to be adept. In this case, free, downloadable programs such as Spybot represent the solution, but also another bit of technology that wasn’t so commonplace even six months ago.

Spyware represents yet one more weapon branded by the community of Internet saboteurs bent on twisting the technology to their selfish and ill-intentioned goals. It will not be the last one, and certainly not the worst. The war will continue to escalate with, unfortunately, network managers caught in the crossfire. Their best, and perhaps only defenses, are awareness and quick action.

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