Often misunderstood and grouped together with other more nefarious spyware and malware, adware has earned a bad rap through association. However, adware and spyware are not the same.
Adware refers to a group of software applications which deliver ads straight to personal computers and are often bundled with legitimate software. For example, many shareware writers offer free 'sponsored' versions of their software as an alternative to purchasing a license. Users are informed in advance that the software will display ads in exchange for using the software for free. If the user no longer wants to view these ads, they can pay for the shareware license and all ads are removed removed. This type of shareware funding has become vital for some software companies, offering a steady revenue stream in an otherwise overly competitive market.
Originally designed as a method to reach a growing number of internet users during the 1990's, adware was pioneered by websites such as Hotwire, who sold advertising space to some of the largest names in business. However, it was not long before this technology was crossing the boundaries of user privacy.
In 1994, Netscape implemented a new protocol called cookies. This enabled websites to store small bits of information about users on their computers. Cookies also offered the opportunity to store a user's surfing habits and private information for legitimate websites to use on future visits.
The ability to track internet users as they surfed that advertising could be customized to each individual user's interests and purchasing habits, thereby enabling companies to display more relevant products. However, most of these programs were gathering information without the user's permission and often without the user's knowledge. Since the software ran silently in the background of a computer, 'spying', they were soon dubbed 'spyware'.
Spyware is classified as all programs that are designed to 'snoop' a user's machine and everything a user does without their knowledge. These small programs were originally created to record all key strokes, take screen grabs and offer real-time monitoring of all programs and files as they are being used. One of the more popular uses was for spouses who wanted to know what their partners were doing while on the computer.