Go ahead and ask some small business owners what the "hard things" are in business. Some will say, "making sales," some will say, "avoiding lawsuits" -- and some will say "making good hires." But ALL will say, "keeping the network up and running."

It wasn't always like this. Until two years ago, about the worst that could happen was that you could catch a virus from opening an e-mail attachment. True, the virus could wipe you out, but there were a ton of different programs on the market you could use to either protect your workstations from this, or eradicate one that you caught.

While the intent of most virus programs was to close you down and wreck havoc, the new crop of malware known as spyware and adware want you to stay "up" so that you can either see their messages, or so they can report back on who you are.

There are a number of different classes of malware these days:

Adware: Stealth programs that are installed on your computer by some "shareware" products as well as some commercial programs. Adware programs may collect personal information from your computer. Most often this information is used to trigger so-called "relevant" pop-up advertisements on your browser. Besides being a major pain-in-the-rump, it's well documented that if you get enough of these adware "bots" on your machine they can "rapid fire" them such that you can do nothing else. And sometimes you can't even re-boot in order to run anti-adware software. All you can do is re-install operating system, often losing data that was not backed up.

Spyware: Hidden programs and background processes that try to violate your privacy or expose your computer to attack. Spyware programs are attached to programs you intentionally install, but you won't know about them, because they are hidden. Most often spyware programs "phone home," telling someone about what you have on your computer, which sites you have visited, which keys you have typed, and so forth. Say you type in the password to your online banking account. If you're infected with spyware, in about ten minutes, your personal info will be on some hacker chat-group and your bank will be calling to find out why you are overdrawn.

Backdoors: "Open" freeware and shareware applications that may transmit personal information or expose your computer to attack, or make your computer a spam generator under the pretense of providing a service you really want. A number of music download programs create backdoors.

Homepage Hijackers: Let one of these nasty programs onto your system and it will constantly reset your homepage -- and maybe your search function, too -- to destinations hackers want you to go. Worst of all, you can't change it back! Unlike spyware or adware, this "code injection" drops language into your browser that talks only to a hacker's website, which tells it to change the homepage. Often, this code runs in the background and if it notices that you've changed your browser's homepage, it just changes it back.

Pushware: Related to backdoors, pushware is the term for unwanted application programs that come along with completely unrelated software, even commercial boxed software'¦ most often because someone is getting paid to pop it on your system whether you want it or not. Since they tag along with so many different pieces of third-party software, it is not uncommon to get re-infected with these pushware products often. Pushware often does not carry a "payload" but only puts an icon on your desktop of a legitimate program that they hope you will try and perhaps buy.

So what do you do?

There are three main methods of avoiding all of the above:

  • Firewall yourself
    Use a mail server (e.g. Exchange) and install software or make settings that will flag all email with attachments and delete them or send them to a special holding box for later examination.

    Change browsers from the malware-prone Microsoft Internet Explorer to the Mozilla Firefox or the Opera browser. While there are a few sites that require IE, these are rapidly changing. Running IE is like saying "Hi, give me some adware." Firefox and Opera are an order of magnitude more secure than the beleaguered IE.

    Set up your network to prevent Web access to domains that are suspected of being havens for malware. While there are always new malware sites coming online, preventing access to those that are known is a good step. (Same goes for porn, gambling, hate-group sites, and the like.) Unfortunately, these aren't common knowledge. But a quick Google search of "adware" will give you some leads. One well-known site is http://research.pestpatrol.com/.

    Institute a zero-tolerance policy for user-installed software. Make it known in writing (i.e. make users sign an agreement) that if caught installing any software on their machines'¦ they get fired.

While the above can help prevent getting infected, you also need to have a strategy of what to do if adware or spyware gets into your system.

  • Eternal vigilance
    Of course, the first thing you need to do is load up on anti-virus, anti-adware and anti-spyware software. Some of these are free; others are inexpensive.

    Designate someone to oversee the responsibility of making sure the virus, adware, and spyware programs are run as well as updated. Sometimes software makers send out updates on where the holes may be on a weekly basis. It's a never-ending task.

    On each workstation, create a scheduled "job" that runs each night to scan for malware and eliminate it. This is probably the single most important thing you can do.

Guarding against spyware and adware, as well as getting rid of it should any of it slip through (and it often does, even to the most secure systems), is a major time-sink. Thus, a lot of companies have decided to '¦

  • Change platforms
    This is a drastic step and not one that can or should be taken lightly, but in the last 18 months, tens of thousands of businesses have given up on the Windows operating system and have moved to either Linux or Macintosh OS-X.

    There is currently zero malware that affects Linux or OS-X. The argument is that because the user base is small, the bad guys don't bother. Not totally true. Both operating systems were created with security first, and convenience second. It is just the opposite with Windows.

    With the new release of Windows (code-named 'Longhorn') several years away, and with the SP2, the latest update to Windows XP, that was just issued not doing enough to tackle the adware and spyware problems, it is estimated that fifteen to twenty percent of the firms in the small and mid-size business sector will switch to an alternative system in the next two years.

For years and years and years others have come and gone trying to wrest the desktop away from Microsoft. We've seen IBM try, we've seen Apple try. It may be adware and spyware that engender a mass switch'¦ something neither IBM nor Apple could do.

You know the old riddle that a Republican is a Democrat who just got his tax bill. So who's a Linux user? She's a Windows user who just caught the Sasser worm!

Alan Canton is the president of Adams-Blake Company, Inc. of Fair Oaks, CA. Adams-Blake Company provides the JAYA123 web-based "back-office" application for small and mid-size businesses. The company has standardized on Apache, MySQL, PHP, and runs Slackware 9.1 Linux on all of its desktops. For office automation, they use both Open Office as well as Microsoft Office running under Crossover Office by CodeWeavers.