Spyware! Scumware! File-sharing programs violate privacy, wreck computers
Release Date: 09-30-2002
People using computers on which file sharing programs have been running are finding that Web browsers don't work, or unexpected web pages appear, or everything runs very slowly. For example, people using WebCT suddenly find themselves at AskJeeves.com, or Internet Explorer won't start, or Webmail doesn't work. "Spyware" — also known as "scumware" — may be to blame.
Almost everyone is familiar with file sharing (or peer-to-peer) programs these days. The first of these programs, the infamous Napster, was bare bones compared to the recent ones. Current ones, such as Kazaa, Morpheus, and LimeWire, will let users search for not only music files, but movie files, games, and other programs. These files may seem free, but they're not. Since almost all fire sharing applications are distributed for free, the authors have found other ways to generate revenue. Most of these programs install components that collect information about users and push ads to them through their web browsers. These programs, called spyware or scumware, record information about users and sell them to advertising companies. There are even reports of file sharing programs diverting commissions on online purchases back to themselves — "stealware." Gator and TopText are among the most intrusive and deceptive of this type of program.
To some, this trade-off might not sound so bad: users get free files at the cost of a small loss in privacy. In reality many of these programs can cause computing problems ranging from annoying to serious. Many UVM students and employees this semester having been having problems that are linked to spyware. The most common problem is users are unable to login to the University's Webmail program or the Registrar's page (when users hit submit the web page refreshes, clears the username/password and doesn't log the user in.) Removing spyware components has fixed these problems most of the time. For some users, deleting spyware has fixed the problem of not being able to start a web browser or even the computer.
Uninstalling spyware by hand can be laborious and time consuming. Fortunately there is a free program called Ad-aware that will detect many spyware components installed on a computer and delete them. It is not supported or warranted by UVM, but if you'd like to try it, you can download it from
For additional information about scumware, spyware, and ways to clean up your computer, see:
Michael Kontrovitz & Dean Williams