Do you know what is a spyware, or simply assume it is another form of virus or Trojans? Actually, Spyware is a malicious software that intercepts actions or take partial control of a computer without the user consent. According to the Wikipedia, the name refers broadly to software that subverts the computer's operation for the benefit of a third party.
Spyware differs from viruses and worms in that it does not usually self-replicate.
Some of these programs are found on webpages or installed without user knowledge as part of another software package – generally free ones.
These programs can collect information about users, computer usage, shopping habits and more and transmit this data to a server that will then use it for commercial purposes (like collecting e-mail addresses to sell to spammers) or to present unwanted advertisements on the user’s PC.
There are quite a few solutions in the market, and some are spyware too – promising to clean up the user’s computer but actually providing false positive results so that the users is pressed to purchase the software.
Other software are quite well known (like Lavasot Ad-Aware or more lately the Microsoft AntiSpyware program) but there are options that work well and sometimes users feel comfortable with.
I recently received the Spyware Doctor, from PC Tools, for review and it certainly feels like one of these. It has an easy to use interface and above all it works as promised.
I run the Microsoft AntiSpyware in two of my computers, mainly because it is currently free – but the product is currently being distributed as beta, and at this stage there are rumors that it could be incorporated into Microsoft OneCare, a subscription-based service to be offered later this year, including anti-virus, backup and other tools. So I used this software as a benchmark.
To test the Spyware Doctor I created a couple of virtual PC running Windows XP Service Pack 2. In one of them I had Microsoft AntiSpyware installed and the second one had the Spyware Doctor software running.
Installation was simple with an easy to follow wizard. After the installation I used the LiveUpdate feature to download updates for the program and new signatures for the detection engine.
My first test was running a full scan on both computers, and although the difference was not very big, Spyware Doctor was the faster product to scan the whole disk.
Users that like more control over their programs will enjoy Spyware Doctor. It has a very complete set of monitoring features and a high level of control over each feature – but it will run just fine using the default configuration.
The software provides manual and automatic system scans, plus an OnGuard feature. When enabled the OnGuard will monitor different parts of the system and inform the user of any change, or block changes if needed. The OnGuard list includes Cookie Guard Startup Guard, Browser, Immunizer, Keylogger, Network Guard, Popup Blocker, Process Guard, and Site Guard.
Click any image for a larget screenshot
The interesting ones are the Startup Guard, Keylogger, Process Guard and Site Guard. These will prevent new programs initiating automatically with your computer, block programs that collect your keyboard input, stop known malicious programs running and prevent access to malicious sites, like the ones used for phising.
The cookies control is an interesting feature, and it constantly monitors the data folders used by the main browsers, removing cookie files. But I find it interesting that people want to remove these text files from their computers. Most websites rely on using these files to manage shopping carts for example, or automatic login. I actually turned this feature off, otherwise I could complete a purchase on a software store.
On the Browser Guard settings users can check a list of Browser Helper Object (BHO), programs that add functionality to web browser, and sometimes vectors of malware software. Spyware Doctor highlights the possible spyware on the list and the user can, as an option, unregister any unwanted program from the list.
I did try to install some programs and toolbars and the Spyware Doctor prevented this to happen, or found and successfully cleaned up the files from my test system during a manual scan.
The software has a very good user interface, and it is easy to find options and settings. The notifications come up in a way quite similar to that used by MSN Messenger.
Some users will be safe enough with this software, while others may want to add it to the collection of security tools in use. I think this software fits well in both situations.
Good user interface
Subscription service offers one year updates
Does not slowdown the computer
Good default settings for non-power users
Phishing sites blocking list
Power users will feel some of the default settings too restrictive.
Not for enterprise if the company requires centralised settings management