Leading antivirus software makers Symantec and Network Associates have both updated their products, touting protection against "spyware" and internet worms.
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Symantec's Norton AntiVirus 2004 can detect a range of snooping programs that are not technically viruses, but still pose a threat to internet users' privacy.
Network Associates' latest version of McAfee VirusScan also spots spyware and adware, allowing users to detect and remove the suspect software applications from systems running VirusScan.
Spyware and adware programs silently monitor a user's activity on the internet, keeping track of information such as websites visited.
Norton AntiVirus 2004 will scan e-mail and instant message attachments, flagging known spyware programs before they are installed. The program will also spot spyware and adware programs that have already been installed and report those to the user.
It also flags legal adware (advertising software) programs such as the popular Gator software.
A popular example of adware (or advertising software), Gator performs useful tasks for users such as remembering and filling in user names, passwords and other data for online forms. However, the program also tracks user behaviour and buying habits for the company's customers and delivers targeted "pop-up" ads to desktops.
Norton AntiVirus will not automatically remove adware like Gator, which is often governed by a licensing agreement that the user acknowledged when the program was installed, said Kelly Martin, senior product manager for Norton Antivirus 2004.
The focus on spyware comes after research on end users identified the stealth programs as a leading concern among Norton AntiVirus users, even when users were unaware they had the programs installed, she said.
"Even if users were not able to articulate 'I have spyware,' they were telling us about dialling programs that were calling out to a third party or having their [web browser] hijacked or the home page rerouted to another site. This was a big ticket issue for our user base," she added.
Network Associates is also calling attention to WormStopper, a feature which enables VirusScan to spot worm-like activity, such as a high volume of e-mail and repetitive e-mail content.
While the new feature will not stop infections, it will slow the spread of mass-mailing worms like Blaster and Sobig.F.
Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service