You've probably heard the terms spyware and adware. They are often used interchangeably however there are several key distinctions between the two types of programs. Often times, spy ware and ad ware are mistaken as viruses, though they are neither virus nor are they spam. Like viruses, they are programs that generally sneak onto your system without your knowledge.
Adware is often a legitimate program and can be a condition of numerous "freeware" programs. For instance, you may download a free product but instead of paying for the product, you agree to view advertisements. This is a legitimate trade off that you enter into in exchange for trying a program for free. The ads generally run while you are using the program and should disappear when you close the program.
If ad ware is part of the agreement and does not track your web surfing habits or history, it is generally considered safe. But when the adware crosses the line and begins to track your computing habits in an effort to serve more targeted ads, it has become intrusive and becomes muddled into the category of spy ware.
Spyware, on the other hand, is never legitimate. Its sole purpose is to watch, track and report what you do on your computer. It is rarely agreed upon by the user; instead it is usually installed without the user's knowledge or consent. The danger of spyware lies in its ability to track and record everything you do and then report that information to a third party. While adware can be annoying, spyware can be downright dangerous.
Spyware can record your keystrokes, snoop for passwords and credit card information, scan your hard drive, install other spyware programs, change browser settings and much more. Worse yet, it transmits this information to third parties who use the information to target the user with more unwanted ads, steal their identities or sell the information to someone else.
Sometimes, end user license agreements, or EULAs, spell out that a spyware program will be installed along with the requested program. These disclaimers take advantage of the fact that most people won't read the entire agreement and bury the disclaimer among all the legal terms.
Ad ware becomes spy ware when it goes beyond the agreed upon terms. If the user agrees to view ads while using the adware sponsored program, then the ad ware is acceptable. If the adware begins snooping on the user's system or begins tracking the user's habits, the adware is now considered malicious.
Spyware oftentimes displays advertising but it isn't in conjunction with an agreement between the user and the software provider. A user's computer may be infected by spy ware without his or her knowledge and the system may suddenly become bombarded with unwanted pop-up ads. In addition, these advertisements become more targeted to the user's interests because they track the user's web surfing habits. Or, more commonly, the ads are for adult content, which is highly objectionable because the ads themselves are quite graphic.
Because adware and spy ware are nuisances and more importantly can be dangerous, it is imperative to combat these unwanted programs with an anti-spyware program and to follow safe surfing habits. Be wary of free downloads and file sharing websites. Be sure to read privacy policies and all the terms of any end user license agreement before agreeing to any type of installation. Finally, once you have a reputable anti-spyware program installed, keep it current.