Web used to be such as simple, enjoyable experience. Go to the web
site of your choice, enjoy the page, and head somewhere else.
No longer. At times, it now seems like a sleazy carnival midway,
complete with flashing lights and loud music, barkers pleading at you
to venture into the sideshows, scamsters promising you big payoffs if
you try three-card monte, and no-goodniks lurking in the shadows.
For that, we have
pop ups, spyware,
and web bugs to thank. Pop ups are ads that, as the name implies, pop
up over your browser, usually in a smaller window, and frequently
contain flashing messages and other kinds of obnoxious come-ons. The
infamous X.10 surveillance camera pioneered this insufferable form of
advertising, and now it's everywhere.
Web bugs are
invisible bits of data, frequently a single pixel in size (sometimes
called "clear GIFs"), that can
track all your activities on a web site and report them back to a
server. Spyware is software that piggybacks onto your hard disk on
the backs of other pieces of software, reports on your activities to
ad servers, and then delivers ads to you based on what sites you
visit. There's typically no way to know offhand that
spyware has been installed on your system, because it lurks
invisibly—hence the name. Even after you uninstall the program
upon which it piggybacked, it could remain on your PC, reporting on
You don't have to be victimized, though. As
you'll see in the rest of this hack, there are
things you can do to keep your PC from resembling a virtual midway.
IE: Download Software to Stop Pop Ups
Internet Explorer has no built-in way
to stop pop ups, but you can still kill them with downloadable
software. There are many for-pay pop-up killers, but if you
don't want to spend the cash, you can get an
excellent one for free: EMS Free Surfer mk II, shown in . It lets you set several levels of pop-up
protection—you can block all pop ups or only those that appear
to be unwanted—and you can turn it on and off with a click. It
has other helpful tools as well, such as letting you shut every open
instance of Internet Explorer with a single click, and it includes an
add-in that will clean out your system cache and list of recently
visited sites. Get it at http://www.kolumbus.fi/eero.muhonen/FS/fs.htm.
(Don't confuse it with a related product, EMS Free
Surfer Companion, which offers more features than the free versions
and costs $20.)
Figure 1. EMS Free Surver mk II
Ditch IE: Use Opera or Mozilla to Stop Pop Ups
Here's one way to get
rid of pop-up annoyances: skip Internet Explorer altogether! IE
can't kill pop ups, but other browsers can. Both
Opera and Mozilla include a built-in
pop-up killer as a menu option.
Download Opera from http://www.opera.com. To enable its pop-up
killer, choose File → Preferences →
"Refuse pop-up windows". You can
also have the program open pop-up windows in the background instead
of on top of your browser.
Download Mozilla from http://www.mozilla.org. To enable its pop-up
killer, choose Edit → Preferences → Privacy &
Security → Pop-ups → and check
"Reject pop-up windows."
Stop Messenger Service Popups
In recent months, the most obnoxious
pop ups of all have started to appear on computer
users' screens—popups that
aren't connected to a browser, appear even when
you're not surfing the Web, and show up in a
text-message window for no apparent reason. You've
taken no conceivable action that could have caused them to appear,
such as visiting a web site. And yet there they are.
These text pop ups use XP's Messenger service, which
was designed for sending notifications over internal local area
networks—for example, when a network administrator wants to
notify network users that a server is about to go down, or when
you're notified that a printer has completed a job
The Messenger service is not related to Windows Messenger,
Microsoft's instant-messaging program.
But spammers took hold of the technology, and now blast out text pop
ups to IP addresses across the Internet. How ubiquitous are these pop
ups becoming? I recently bought a new laptop, and within 10 minutes
of turning it on for the first time I had received my first Messenger
service pop up.
To kill these pop ups, disable the Messenger service. Run the
Microsoft Management Console by typing
services.msc at a command prompt or the Run box
and pressing Enter. Double-click on the entry for Messenger, choose
Disabled as the Startup type from the screen that appears, and click
OK. Pop ups will no longer get through. Unfortunately, neither will
any network messages from administrators if you're
on a LAN.
If you're running a
router at home that allows you to block
ports, you can kill these messages by disabling port 135. How you do
this varies according to your router. To do it on a Linksys router,
go to the router administrator screen and choose Advanced →
Filters. In Filtered Private Port Range, choose Both, and for the
range, type 135 twice. Click Apply. The pop ups
should now be disabled.
Watch Out for Web Bugs
Web bugs are one of the more
pernicious ways your online activities can be tracked, no matter
which browser you're using. Sometimes, the web site
the bugs send information to isn't the one that
contains the web bug; for example, they may send information back to
an online advertising network.
Web bugs are surprisingly common. The Cyveillance technology and
analysis company found that their use grew nearly 500% between 1998
and 2001. Web bugs can send the following information back to a
The IP address of your computer
The URL of the page on which the web bug is located, so they know
that you visited the page
The time the web bug was viewed, so they know exactly when you
visited the page
The URL of the web bug image
The type of browser that you have
Your cookie values
A free piece of software called Bugnosis (http://www.bugnosis.org) will alert you
whenever it comes across web bugs on pages you visit. It reports on
the URL that the bug reports to, and, for some bugs, it will let you
click on a link it creates so that you can send an email of complaint
to the web site that runs the bug. It runs inside Internet Explorer.
The last time I visited the site, it no longer had Bugnosis
available, but promised it would be back soon. Be prepared that it
might not be there when you visit.
The software can't actually protect you against web
bugs, but it can alert you when you visit pages that use them. If you
want your privacy protected when you surf the Web, your best bet is
to surf anonymously .
Protect Yourself Against Spyware
Spyware has become increasingly controversial and increasingly
popular, as developers of free software struggle to find a way to
support themselves. Of late, spyware has been getting increasingly
intrusive; some people call these more aggressive programs
Scumware may change your default home page without telling you, or
may even intervene when you're making a purchase
online and redirect you to a different site.
There are several ways to protect yourself against spyware:
Be vigilant about what you download. Ad-supported programs may
include spyware, though not all do. Check out the
" Index of Known
Spyware" page run by Gibson Research at http://grc.com/oo/spyware.htm for a list of
spyware programs. The only problem with that site is that it lists
only the spyware components, and it's difficult to
find out their names. A better bet is http://www.spychecker.com, which lets you
type in the name of a program you downloaded and then tells you
whether spyware piggybacks onto it.
Figure 2. Finding and deleting spyware on your system with Ad-Aware
Keep in mind that when you delete spyware, you may disable software
as well, so it's a good idea to always create a
Restore point before deleting
spyware. Choose Control Panel → Performance and Maintenance
→ System Restore and follow the instructions. For example,
if you remove the Cydoor spyware program, the Kazaa file-sharing
program will no longer work. Alternatives to Kazaa include Shareaza
front-end to the popular Gnutella file-sharing network that also can
hook into other file-sharing networks, such as the one that Kazaa