While you're surfing the Internet, a popup appears, inviting you to download free, automatic clock updates so you'll never have to set your computer clock again. Should you be wary? You bet! Often, attractive freebees and giveaways like this come with hidden plugins that do more than keep time, they keep watch.
What are Plugins?
Plugins are mini computer programs that offer additional functionality to a computer program. Graphic viewers, spell checkers and dictionaries are all tools that can be obtained as addons (another term for plugins). Sometimes manufacturers provide these free or for a small fee.
For example, I can download the Google toolbar plugin for free, making my online searches a little more convenient. Google, however, will not install their toolbar on my browser unless I request it.
Plugins from disreputable sources don't always ask permission before writing themselves to your hard drive. And even when they do, many don't share their true purpose. Spyware, adware and browser programs can be excellent tools, but be cautious they can also be used against you.
One of the most harmless (yet most obnoxious) of these plugin types is adware, a plugin that subjects you to extra advertisements. Adware attaches itself to your browser program. Those who surf online but don't block and purge adware eventually can become buried under a constant barrage of ads some adware programs even target your computer as a perpetual billboard when you are offline. The proponents of adware hope to wear down or trick viewers into clicking ads to buy products and services.
Most adware plugins these days take advantage of the opportunities to spy on your preferences, keeping track of words you type into search engines in order to target advertisements to your interests. Technically, this means virtually all adware is also spyware. But adware is still the common term for spyware that limits itself to targeted advertisement spying.
As the name suggests, spyware tracks your online moves. Spyware plugins also rely on your browser to function. Some companies use spyware plugins to ensure that their customers use the original disc (not a copy) and others use spyware to track how often you visit their website. These are relatively harmless tactics used by companies looking out for their specific interests.
The more dangerous and aggressive spyware plugins track all your web surfing habits to harvest Internet trend information. Some spyware packages harvest your email address in order to target you with spam. Spyware plugins like these travel as stowaways on freeware, shareware or other software you download to your computer, including downloads from deceptive ads you click.
To successfully find and remove these programs from your computer, use a quality anti-spyware program .
Aggressive browser plugins also called hijackers claim to help guide your online activities, but have their own agenda. Typically the goal of a hijacker is to improve website ranking or boost sales by misdirecting your browser to land on websites it wants you to visit. A browser plugin attaches to your browser and can override your settings.
For example, CoolWebSearch is a common browser hijacker that redirects your computer to the CoolWebSearch website (or an associated site) each time you logon, in spite of your homepage preferences. By hijacking thousands of Internet browsers, CoolWebSearch can boost their site popularity artificially and reap greater income from advertising and sales. Using a hijacker allows a website to make a quick buck at the expense of their reputation and your sanity.
One way to keep hijackers from taking your browser hostage is to avoid surfing while logged in as the administrator. Use your administrator login for setup, installs and system changes, but spend your browsing time logged in as a user with limited rights and privileges. A hijacker can't take over as your computer administrator if you aren't logged in as one yourself.
Having your browser tell you where to go is annoying and time-consuming. Click here for options to remove browser highjackers like CoolWebSearch.
Spying by Consent
Spying is OK if you've given permission. For example, millions have downloaded the free Alexa toolbar fully knowing that their website visits are being tallied, that they are being hit with targeted marketing, and that data entered into forms may not be as secure.
How to Avoid Deceptive Plugins
Remember that genuine businesses offer genuine plugins. A reputable business will tell you everything you need to know about the plugin up front. But businesses that make money from deceptive plugins need to hide everything, including their reputation and motives. To avoid deceptive plugins, always:
- Read the fine print
- Look for a motive
- Find out where the site you're visiting gets its income
- Use logic remember that reputable businesses have nothing to hide
- Determine if a business is legit by looking for contact information: an email address, a physical address and phone number
- Look for associations and endorsements from other reputable businesses
Above all, remember that deceptive ads and online promises deliver what you want to hear, not what you need to know...that you'll have to find for yourself.
To compare privacy software features and read product reviews, see our Privacy Software Review.