The UK had the third highest rate of spyware infections last quarter, according to research by anti-spyware firm Webroot Software which lumps tracking cookies in with far more malicious risks such as Trojans and keylogging programs. The UK has 18 "spies" on an average PC if you include cookies but only 4.5 if you exclude these lesser threats, a figure which puts the UK outside the top 10 of spyware infested nations. The US - either with or without cookies - tops Webroot's spyware poll.
Spyware falls into several categories. At its most basic, spyware consists of programs that track online and offline activities, which are shared with third parties without a user’s consent. Spyware can include system monitoring tools that record everything from visited sites to chat sessions, while also including keylogger programs which capture keystroke information such as usernames and passwords used for online banking, for example. A bigger category (by number) are invasive programs that feed advertising to unsuspecting users - spyware’s more benign cousin - adware.
Webroot's study discovered that almost 55 per cent of consumer machines are infected with adware; 21 per cent Trojans and five per cent with system monitors. Adware, such as pop up adverts, significantly slows a PC’s overall performance. How much of a performance hit adware infested machines take is hard to say, but Webroot reckons the figure could be anywhere between 10 to 90 per cent.
The anti-spyware firm guesstimates that spyware is costing the UK as much as £445m in lost time, productivity and in computer repairs. How does it come by this incredible figure?
Richard Stiennon, VP of threat research at Webroot, said the figure partly comes from an estimated £100m impact on productivity due to spyware plus an estimated £345m based on the idea that spyware infested PCs take four hours to clean. The impact on productivity figure comes from multiplying the number of PCs in the UK (30m), by the amount of time people spend online during the average day (two hours) by a 20 per cent degradation in productivity on infested machines by an average UK wage of £12 per hour.
Stiennon said he used conservative figures in making his calculations before conceding they were "not statistically rigorous". He said he calculated the figures (on the back of an envelope, we'd suspect) in response to a question by an unnamed journalist.
Estimates on the damage caused by computer viruses are a notoriously inexact science. The same seems to apply to looking at the adware and spyware market, but Webroot, though honest enough to backtrack when challenged, continually feels the need to trot out guesstimates on the spyware market or (in this case) the UK impact of spyware problem. ®