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Spyware, Adware, etc. -- Terms and Common Sense

When reading an article where some term is used often, it is useful to make sure the author of the article and you mean the same. Not surprisingly for those who still remember English lessons at school, every noun ending with "ware" is a mixture of objects having something in common--usually used for similar purposes. So it tends to be when "ware" is short for "software"; sometimes it's pretty tricky to define exactly what kind of software it includes and what these programs do.

If the terms "adware" and "spyware" are used in an article as synonyms (sometimes even experienced journalists make such a mistake), readers will just wonder why there are so many words for the same stuff. Since computer programmers and gurus don't read these articles at all, an average user feels bewildered when he finishes reading. Too many terms with too vague meanings?it's nothing more than my own impression, because I am not a programmer or a guru--just a linguist. I'm still trying to make a head and tail of it.

Spyware, adware, malware, what else? - trackware, trapware, crapware, junkware, snoopware? Readers have heard a lot about browser hijackers, dialers, keyloggers, cookies, BHOs, Trojan horse programs, viruses, worms?What a motley crew! Is it possible for the average non-tech person to memorize their numerous definitions and knotty relations with one another? What is a part of which? If one looks trough several definitions of "spyware" given in some articles, he is going to find muddle and confusion instead of clarity.

Well, let's use common sense. Fortunately, it is sometimes easy to guess from the type of a program what such programs actually do--so, let' try. A browser hijacker is software that hijacks browsers (and does some other nasty things). Correct. A keylogger is software that logs keystrokes (ditto). Exactly.

Adware is software used for targeted advertising. Well, yes. There must be as many types of programs as there exist methods of advertising. Pop-up flood is also method of advertising. Is hijacking a browser also an approach to advertising? If it is so, creators of those annoying browser hijackers have somehow perverted logic.

And what about tracking potential customers? It is exactly the point where "adware" and "spyware" meet. People also tend to call all unwanted software "spyware" because these programs are installed without users' consent. But?nobody has ever wanted any advertising in print or on TV. Will you watch an ads-only channel? Will you buy an ads-only magazine? Online advertising just follows the tendency (sometimes going too far) to get exposure, to make a user notice ads-- at all cost.

Is spyware software used for spying, as one may deduce from the name? Yes and no. If software collects information and transmits it, such a program is automatically called "spyware" no matter how valuable this information is. That is why keyloggers (programs specially created for capturing key strokes) and cookies are both called "spyware". Well, if cookies and BHOs are kinds of spyware-- then a unicycle and roller skates are vehicles. When calling some kind of programs "spyware" we should at least consider what they "steal" and how this information is used.

Other terms are also pretty indistinct, though sometimes amusing.

Terms like " crapware" and "junkware" aren't very good, they just show attitude to such software instead of meaning anything clear.

"Malware" is too broad and too general. If one hears that some software is called malicious, he has no idea about what kind of software it is. Dividing software into malicious and benign is like dividing all, say, plants just into eatable and uneatable.

As for viruses, worms and Trojan horse programs, this fauna (not paying a slightest attention to the laws of biology) has already made up such hybrids with one another that no genetic engineer could probably dream about. Programmers say that there are almost no such viruses, worms or Trojans as they used to be only several years ago. These terms might become obsolete pretty soon because of this "evolution".

"Trojan horse" is pretty elegant term, by the way -- there is a clear idea of something benign-looking with some potentially dangerous core inside. Makes people remember history, Ancient Greeks and Homer.

All these may seem amusing for a philologist and make a good material for a linguistic study, but for an average PC user who would like to know what exactly his anti-spy software protects against, it is still a confusing mess of terms.

Alexandra Gamanenko currently works as a PR manager at the Raytown Corporation, LLC--an independent software developing company. website


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