Q: Every time I go poking around the Web, I'm bombarded with pop-ups asking whether I'd like to install a program called "Gator." I'm suspicious, but my friend gives it a big thumbs-up?says it helps him fill out Web forms with a single click. Is there some awful catch, or am I just being way too cynical?
"Awful" may be too strong a word to describe the software's downside, but you're wise to beware the gift-bearing Greeks of the Gator Corporation. Yes, Gator's eWallet means no more futzing with passwords and addresses as you gambol about cyberspace. It also means letting the California-based company track your surfing habits, chomp your bandwidth, and potentially crash your machine. A fair trade for the exceptionally lazy among us, perhaps, but not something Mr. Roboto can recommend.
Gator is often lumped together with programs such as BonziBuddy and Comet Cursor under the heading of "spyware" (or, less flatteringly, "scumware"). It takes little imagination to guess what such programs do: They figure out what sites you visit, which banners you click, and which zip code you live in, then pepper you with ads ostensibly tailored to your tastes. Visit ESPN.com several times a day? Gator will make sure you're besieged with pitches for team-logo mugs. A site featuring grannies in leather corsets? Mr. Roboto won't speculate, but Gator will figure something out.
Of course, spyware's got a high creep factor, regardless of the vendors' claims that they don't record or sell personal data. Which is why the Gators of the world favor the bait-and-switch approach to worming into your hard drive. Should you affirm that, yes, you'd like to at least consider installing Gator, you'll be told the eWallet is a wondrous product that'll save you oodles of time?one click and your e-commerce order is filled out with all the relevant info, stored locally on your machine. BonziBuddy offers a cuddly purple gorilla who'll sit on your desktop, always eager to tell jokes on command. The part about the Web site tracking? That's buried deep within the end-user license agreement, which?admit it?you never, ever read.
If the privacy implications don't skeeve you out, maybe spyware's impact on your computer's performance will. Gator and its cohorts chew up tons of bandwidth delivering their targeted ads; some spyware even uses your Internet connection to send ads to other "customers," not terribly unlike Kazakh hackers commandeering South Korean servers for nefarious purposes. Spyware also tends not to sit well with some less robust versions of Windows, particularly NT and XP Home; Mr. Roboto tested BonziBuddy on a PC running the latter, and encountered his fair share of system-crashing "blue screens of death" as a result. (For the hardcore geeks in the audience: The purple gorilla seemingly wasn't simpatico with the laptop's ATI Mobility Radeon driver.)
Some users have complained that Gator automatically installs itself when the Web browser security setting is set to low, though the company claims such incidents are isolated. Others may have unwittingly downloaded spyware while snatching file-sharing services like Kazaa or BearShare, which help subsidize themselves by coming equipped with tracking programs. Gator affiliates, for example, earn around $1 each time they lure a user into joining what Gator euphemistically terms the "Gator Advertising Information Network."
The good news is that, in response to myriad griping, spyware vendors have made it relatively easy to rid yourself of their annoying products. Step one is to use the Uninstall utility to ditch the offending program. Still, remnants of the spyware may remain embedded in your system registry (the eternal Windows problem), so you'll need an effective "cleaner." Mr. Roboto, who admits to having short arms and deep pockets, adores Ad-aware 5.83, a freebie available from Lavasoft (Lavasoft.de).
The real key to keeping your computer spyware-free, however, is that old standby, eternal vigilance. These vendors are sly, especially the Bonzi folks, who are currently being sued for masquerading their pop-up ads as Windows error messages. Perhaps there's a general rule of thumb to be learned here: If a cute anthropomorphic animal asks you to download something, don't.