The Microsoft anti-spyware tool

Tips & Hints

Microsoft's attempt to limit spyware brings back memories for older computer users.

Posted 29 January 2005

2004 was the year spyware became the greatest problem for Windows users. By the end the year, one estimate showed 80% of Windows systems had some type of spyware. People were starting to move away from Internet Explorer or exploring using Macs or Firefox, Microsoft had to do something.

So they did the thing they do best; they bought somebody else’s software. This was an anti-spyware program from a company named Giant, which had scored well in various tests. After a few months being rebadged, it has been released as beta (or test) version.

The re-badged Microsoft AntiSpyware package is a free download. You can run a regular scan and leave it running in the taskbar to warn you when the nasties get on the system. It will also warn when something suspicious tries to change system settings.

At present, it’s a beta version. Beta is geek-speak for “test,” where the developer releases the unfinished program to volunteers who send their comments ("it wiped me hard disk") back. Normally we don’t recommend people test software on their machines, but given this product was available, with good reviews, prior to Microsoft buying it, we suspect its fine to use.

Having tested it on a number of infected machines, we’ve found it a user friendly tool. However it made assumptions about not removing some programs that we don’t agree with and it didn’t detect all the malware other programs detected. To be fair to Microsoft and Giant, no one program is good at detecting all the nasties, so we’d recommend using it along with other programs like Adaware and Spybot.

The AntiSpyware tool is one of two tools Microsoft has released over January. The other, the Malicious Software Removal Tool, is designed to remove a small range of viruses. We recommend downloading it as part of the regular Windows Update procedure, but it is not a substitute for a proper antivirus program.

Unfortunately, the main reasons why spyware and viruses are such a problem are the inherent flaws in Windows and Internet Explorer. Until these are addressed, tools like the AntiSpyware package are only patching up the holes. We still suggest using Firefox for your regular web browsing and keeping IE only for the websites that don’t work in Firefox.

A little historical note, Microsoft provided an antivirus program with DOS 6.2, just over ten years ago. This only encouraged virus writers to specifically target the MS program and eventually MSAV was abandoned. Our guess is the spyware writers will be just as aggressive towards Microsoft’s latest effort.

On balance, we’d recommend using the AntiSpyware tool in conjunction with other anti-spyware tools. But there is no substitute for being cautious when surfing the net. Use Firefox or another Internet Explorer alternative, be very careful about which sites you visit, don’t click or accept popups while surfing and be suspicious of any free software.
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