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Network Associates fights spyware

The maker of McAfee antivirus software is joining the fight against spyware, offering an anti-spyware tool that takes a proactive approach.

Network Associates, the maker of McAfee antivirus software, is joining the fight against spyware, programs that track people's Internet habits, gather personal information and deliver it to advertisers.

On Thursday, the company released McAfee AntiSpyware, a new product designed to automatically and proactively guard consumers against the threat of spyware and adware, programs that allow advertisements to automatically pop up on a computer screen.

Spyware is a broad term often used to describe unwelcome programs that take up residence on a computer's hard drive. They typically appear when computer users download freeware or shareware from the Internet. They also can be passed around through e-mails and peer-to-peer applications such as instant messaging and music file-sharing software.

The programs are designed to keep track of a computer user's online activities and report those results to Web advertisers, which use them to target pop-up advertising. Identity thieves can use the technology to steal personal information.

Many people don't even realize that they've downloaded spyware, which can be difficult to locate and remove. According to a report published by the National Cyber Security Alliance in May 2003, 91 percent of the 120 individuals participating in the study had spyware loaded on their computers. And almost none of those in the survey understood that spyware could be installed through various music and file-sharing programs.

Security companies have already begun responding to the problem. Software such as Pest Patrol, Spybot-Search & Destroy and Lavasoft's Ad-aware are popular hard-drive cleaners that can be downloaded from the Web. Personal firewalls such as ZoneLab's ZoneAlarm help prevent unauthorized programs from using network connections to contact the outside world without permission.

Internet service providers also are offering solutions. Earlier this month, America Online, a unit of Time Warner, and EarthLink promised to protect their subscribers.

Other large security companies also have introduced products to combat the problem. In September, Network Associates rival Symantec included anti-spyware in its new version of its Norton antivirus software.

While other companies are offering the technology for free, the software license for McAfee AntiSpyware costs $39.95.

But Network Associates said it has taken anti-spyware technology a step further than offerings from other companies. Bryson Gordon, senior product manager for McAfee's security consumer division, said that most software solutions available today require people to manually scan their computers for infected files. After the scan is complete, they are presented with a long list of infected files, which they must decide to delete or keep.

Gordon said that McAfee doesn't rely on scans that computer users initiate. "We've automated the process so that it's proactive," he said. "The moment a piece of spyware tries to write anything on the hard drive or sends a message back to a central location, we catch it and block it."

McAfee also removes the extra files that are often downloaded along with the spyware files. These programs usually download cookies and other components that can hinder the computer's overall performance.