Technologists will tell you that second only to spam and viruses, spyware (search) is one of the modern day plagues of the Internet. 

It is a very serious problem that warrants attention, but we must resist the temptation by lawmakers to rush a legislative fix to this problem because they could wind up doing more harm than good.

Spyware arrives via the Internet, usually from websites you have visited or files you have willingly downloaded. You usually don’t know that unscrupulous individuals or companies have invaded your computer with their spyware. But the users of spyware are certainly getting to know a lot about you — and that’s the heart of the problem.

Spyware is typically installed on your computer without your knowledge or permission. It can happen when spyware comes along for the ride when you download a file or software that you actually want. A common example is when you or your teenager downloads song swapping software; a spyware program is also included in the download. Spyware collects information about you, again without your consent or knowledge, and it is very difficult to remove from your computer.

What do spyware writers want from you? At one end of the spectrum they might be after your web surfing habits or email address so they can send you ads based on the websites you visit.  Or they may be out to steal your credit card number or Social Security number. 

In recent months, a number of pieces of legislation have been introduced at both the state and federal level to address the problem of spyware. While the goal of lawmakers to “do something” about spyware is both admirable and worthwhile, unfortunately, the proposed solutions are all too often off-target. Some of the bills introduced define spyware so broadly that they would disrupt – and often criminalize – common, everyday transactions like parental controls, virus protection program updates and spam filters. Other proposals resemble a trial lawyer full employment act, in that they open even the most inadvertent of transgressions to the possibility of class action lawsuits. Such a plan helps no one but the trial bar. 

The only thing worse than spyware is a supposed “solution” that either falls short or is so far-reaching that it is counter-productive. I am among the many technologists who are very skeptical of legislative approaches because they are often short-sighted. We must be careful, prudent and deliberate in approaching the problem of spyware.

The debate about how to solve the spyware problem will take some time. In the meantime, consumers who follow these simple steps can reduce their exposure to spyware.

Know what you are downloading. If you are getting a “free” download, make sure it only contains that program and not a piece of spyware that goes along for the ride.

Install and run spyware removal programs on a regular basis.  Ad-aware (search) and Spybot (search) are just two of the many products available that let computer users take back their computers from the grip of spyware. These are easy to use programs that should be a part of your normal computer maintenance routine.

Tighten your privacy settings. Set your browser’s privacy setting to medium or higher to prevent downloads to your computer without your consent.

Activate or install a firewall. Microsoft XP comes with a firewall installed and there are several other good products, from Norton, McAfee and Zone Labs, available for purchase. A firewall monitors all incoming traffic to your computer and only lets in those communications which your computer trusts and needs. 

Install and keep virus software up to date. Many new computers already come preloaded with a trial version of antivirus software from Norton or McAfee that can be renewed online. Off the shelf software may also be purchased at your local retailer. Once installed, be sure to update the software on a regular basis and schedule scans of your computer at least once a week. Both of these functions can be set up to automatically happen at a specific time each week, but your computer must be running for this to happen. If your software is out of date, you will miss the latest viruses.

Keep your software up to date. For both Windows and Mac users, activate the auto-update feature that automatically alerts you when security patches and software updates are available. 

Greater consumer education, enforcement of current fraud and criminal statutes, and improved technological solutions are the tools we should employ in the battle against spyware.  Legislation may have a role in this fight, but it should not be the first step. 

Jim Prendergast is the executive director of  Americans for Technology Leadership.