The truth about free adware
The relationship between free adware and spyware is often misunderstood. Adware is advertiser-supported free software (or 'freeware') that is downloaded by computer users off the Internet. These programs offer to 'help' the user by providing local weather information, e.g. WeatherBug, or by remembering and automatically filling in passwords and addresses, e.g. Gator.
However, these advertisers need a way to make money. They do this by embedding ads in their freeware; advertising banners will run across the top of the Web sites you surf, or your screen will fill with a barrage of pop-up ads. The graphics that come along with free adware can be annoying, but more importantly, they substantially slow down your computer. So advertisers will offer a 'registered,' subscription-only version that is free of advertisements. and costs money.
Free adware can have another purpose. When a user visits a Web site supported by adware, the software places a flag on that user's PC. This software is known as a 'Web bug,' and this is where spyware comes into play. Web bugs are tiny 1-pixel graphics deposited on your computer to track your Internet and email habits. They are invisible to the user's eye. The Web bug sends information back to the advertisers, who then customize their marketing and advertisements for that specific user. For example, if you visit a range of advertiser-supported Web sites devoted to football and the NFL, you might notice that the banners and pop-up ads on your computer are focused around Sports Illustrated and ESPN.
Web bugs are considered spyware if the user does not know they are there. Meanwhile, the Web bug is compiling a record of your Internet use, your shopping preferences, even your email habits. Spyware can go so far as to record personal data such as names, addresses and credit card information. This information is not always sent to an advertiser or marketing firm, as with adware, but can sometimes be 'stolen' by an individual with malicious intent.
Adware is becoming such a problem that Congress is looking into legislation to set guidelines for the online advertising industry. Companies may be forced to install programming that allows users to easily remove the programs if they so wish. The adware company will also have to alert the user to its presence and may even have to post their names on the banner and pop-up ads in order to inform the user as to who's watching.