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Tech Talk: Safe surfing of Internet requires vigilance
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As I fumbled in the dark the other night for my keys, I remembered I had a flashlight app on my cellphone. Today, after examining that app, I discovered it is loaded with spyware, and I promptly uninstalled it.

Many free apps, whether on your computer or cellphone, are loaded with spyware and adware. This is what pays for the so-called free programs. The app itself may be great, and mine was.

The flashlight was extremely bright and it had many options, but ultimately it was looking over my shoulder and into my files.

When you install an app to your phone, look on the permission details page. In order to install an app, you need to agree to these permissions. Most consumers simply agree without knowing to what they are agreeing. The app in question for me not only allowed it access to operate my phone’s flash LEDs (which I expected and understood), but to many other things as well.

It wanted to see my contacts list, the ability to make calls, call information and to stop my phone from sleeping (thus wearing out my battery). It wanted to able to use my microphone and camera (take pictures and videos), have access to my photo and media galleries, see my Wi-Fi connections and have full network access.

As if that weren’t enough, it wanted the ability to read and modify or delete files in the device’s storage.

That’s when I hit the uninstall button.

Most free apps have ad bars on the bottom of the phone’s screen. Usually when you pay for the app, those ads disappear. Some don’t stop at that and have spyware installed too, whether you use the free version or pay for it.

Now this is not to say all apps require these nefarious permissions; some do not. If you scrutinize the application prior to installation, look at the size of it. The one I had initially installed used 12 MB of storage space. That was enough to include all the spyware.

The one I have now is less than one megabyte, and it is clean.

On your computer, the again so-called free programs you found online may be wonderful, but there is always a price to pay, somewhere.

During installation, you click on “Next” and “OK” five or six times before it says the program has been successfully installed. On one of those pages, you checked a box (or left a box checked) that gave the developers permission to install whatever they desired.

The only box that is required to be checked is to their EULA, or End User License Agreement. That’s the one that states they are not responsible for anything.

Instead of clicking on the recommended installation, choose the custom option. That one will allow you to uncheck the boxes you don’t want to agree to, like the apps developers piggyback onto their installer.

Often you will see a “Decline” or “Skip” button. Click it if you see one and continue to the next page.

This is not to say all piggybacked programs are evil, but you still may not want what they contain.

Without mentioning any specific applications, many common free anti-virus and anti-malware programs come loaded with these options. They may not spy on us as my flashlight app did, but they are still considered bloatware.

Along with some of these legitimate programs, you may inadvertently install a tool bar to your browser, a link to a website or a weather app for your desktop. I have seen computer desktops so cluttered with icons that the users didn’t even know what most of them were or where they came from.

My advice is to watch carefully when you install something, especially to your phone.

Most phone applications don’t cost more than a few dollars anyway, and the paid apps don’t include advertising. Yet it’s still a good idea to know exactly what you are agreeing to before you install anything. Watch the permissions.

A lot of spam and pop-ups come from spyware.

Didn’t you ever wonder why after browsing for a certain product, you start seeing ads, getting pop-ups or emails from retailers that sell those products? I was once looking online for trucks and shortly afterward began getting solicitations from car dealers.

Those websites knew I was there thanks to tracking cookies. I evidently made it to someone’s list. Marketing people buy and sell lists like this of potential consumers.

The sites that I registered on with my email address compounded matters even further. Now I’m reluctant to give that information to any website.

We must be ever vigilant in ensuring our Internet traversing is safe and that the programs we install are safe and clean.

Big brother — or his marketing director — may be watching.

Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville.

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