But that time is long gone.
Today, spyware is a serious productivity drag -- the bane of all help desks, and a potential threat to data security. For these reasons, IT organizations are stepping up their anti-spyware efforts by educating users, locking down desktops, and considering enterprise-grade software that not only finds existing spyware, but blocks new infections.
A Job for IT
A useful definition of spyware is: A piece of code that monitors computer users' actions without their genuine consent. The word ''genuine'' is important because frequently, users click an ''I Agree'' box indicating that they understand what they're getting -- but almost nobody reads the contract. Adware is frequently viewed as less malicious than spyware, but it usually includes components that track end-user information, so IT managers should consider it spyware as well.
However spyware makes its way to a computer -- piggybacking on a free screensaver download, sent via email as a virus, or through a deceptive pop-up ad -- it brings several negative side effects. PCs infected with key-logging spyware, for example, could potentially be used by corporate spies or identity thieves to steal company or personal information.
But the most common impact of spyware, by far, is slow performance. And that's where IT comes in.
The number and percentage of help desk calls related to spyware has gone through the roof in recent years. Depending on which analyst firm or large company you ask, 20 percent to 33 percent of all help desk calls are spyware-related.
At the Alaska Native Medical Center, the problem reached critical mass late last year. ''We were spending an inordinate amount of time cleaning up PCs,'' says Chris Deason, network manager at the Anchorage hospital, which has about 1,400 PCs. ''I can think of one tech who spent 10 to 20 hours a week'' on the task, she adds.
Until quite recently, many company help desks steered end users to one of many good spyware-cleanup programs -- which, ironically, are often available as free downloads themselves.
However, those programs have limitations. They may reduce the burden on help desks, but they don't eliminate it.
''You still sort of walk the user through the install and help them run [anti-spyware programs],'' says Richard Stiennon, vice-president of threat research at Webroot Software, a spyware-blocking vendor. ''You cannot rely on the user to run the scan,'' agrees Deason.
Moreover, a typical free spyware scan finds and eliminates existing spyware, but does nothing to prevent new infections.
Dealing with the Threat
Once you decide to handle spyware at the enterprise level, what's the next step? Experts say you need more than just a new products (though that may be part of the solution). A multi-faceted approach works best:
For IT, the major benefit offered by these products is their ability to proactively ''blacklist'' known spyware types. At the Alaska Native Medical Center, Deason recently purchased InterMute's SpySubtract. She says she and the help desk noticed an astonishing change almost immediately. ''In the first 10 days we've had it, I cleaned up close to 30,000 threats,'' Deason says, including 1,600 on a single PC.
What impressed her, though, was the tool's ability to keep those threats from returning. ''It really is a set-it-and-forget-it deal,'' Deason adds.
Most vendors of enterprise-grade anti-spyware applications upgrade their databases weekly or immediately after a new threat is discovered.
There's no reason to believe that the people who create and distribute adware and spyware plan to quit anytime soon. For that reason, IT organizations need to recognize spyware as a genuine threat -- and defend themselves accordingly.
For more information on spyware protection and removal, visit Intranet Journal's Spyware Guide.