Review: Spyware Detectors

We examined seven enterprise-class anti-spyware suites. Our Editor's Choice won for its interface design, removal abilities and ease of deployment. But our second place entry, with its Web-based administration, is

September 16, 2005

31 Min Read
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Note that the products tested are standalone anti-spyware apps, with the exception of McAfee's VirusScan Enterprise and F-Secure's Anti-Virus Client Security, which are parts of the vendors' antivirus-plus-anti-spyware suites.

Spyware Detector Vendors At A GlanceClick to Enlarge

Spyware Defined

Spyware Detector Features

Click to Enlarge

Spyware is a general term used to describe unwanted, obtrusive and potentially dangerous software installed on a workstation, mostly to enrich the creator. Most vendors toss adware, BHOs (browser-helper objects), distributed attack tools, keystroke loggers, P2P software, tracking cookies and unauthorized remote administration tools into the general spyware bin. Of these, keystroke loggers, distributed attack tools and unauthorized remote administration tools are the most dangerous because they let attackers cull information as users go about their business. Keystroke loggers and remote administration tools are particularly effective at capturing business users' Web mail entries, VPN and other log-in credentials, corporate credit-card numbers, administration account information and other sensitive employee and/or customer information. Distributed attack tools can turn your company's computers into spam-sending relay stations or involve them in distributed DoS attacks.

Adware, P2P software, BHOs and tracking cookies generally are more annoying than dangerous, causing pop-ups and slow browser interaction with Web sites as they track where employees travel on the Internet. Still, they reduce productivity, and P2P software, if used by employees to download music illegally, could put your organization in the crosshairs of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The products' ability to detect and remove spyware comprises 40 percent of their scores, with the remaining 60 percent split among console/client configuration, scanning in real time and on schedule, ease of managing and deploying definition file updates, reporting, alerts and notifications, and price.

By The NumbersClick to Enlarge

The products reported on the number of items detected during scans in drastically different ways. No matter what anti-spyware software vendors say in their glossy marketing folders, the sheer number of items removed is not a valid indicator of effectiveness. In our tests, some products listed each registry-entry and file-system change as a unique item; others grouped these changes and listed them under the program(s) responsible. We saw some products detect more than 1,000 possibly unwanted programs, while others flagged fewer than 100, all stemming from our 30 pieces of malware. Because most spyware downloads other spyware, we examined our machines for any nonstandard processes. For comparison purposes we list the number of reported items, but for testing we evaluated the anti-spyware software by examining the computer after it was cleaned, looking for restored functionality of Internet and Windows Explorer and elimination of BHOs, unauthorized programs and pop-ups. We inspected running processes against a known-clean baseline, then used a network analyzer to watch for unauthorized traffic.In our main scoring category, both Trend Micro's Anti-Spyware for SMBs and Sunbelt Software's CounterSpy Enterprise 1.5 performed impressively. We deployed the products on one Windows XP and one Windows 2000 workstation that were so infected they were barely usable. We weren't even able to sign into the workstations (see "How We Tested"). We give a slight edge in spyware detection and removal to CounterSpy--after a single very quick scan (one of the speediest in the pool of seven products) followed by a reboot, CounterSpy restored both machines to full functionality, removing almost all unwanted registry additions. Trend Micro's Anti-Spyware also found and eradicated most of our malware. The only product we'd label deficient in this area is CA's eTrust PestPatrol. Although PestPatrol said it detected and removed 82 and 76 "pests" on the Windows 2000 and Windows XP clients, respectively, many BHOs remained on the Windows 2000 machine, several registry items were passed over, and IE still wasn't usable on the XP machine. We couldn't open the browser and experienced persistent error messages and requests to send reports to Microsoft. The functionality of both test clients was still impaired.

Besides testing the anti-spyware software's ability to detect and remove spyware, we also evaluated configuration features critical to enterprises. IT groups must be able to deploy and control the scanners from a central location and access reports on their effectiveness. This reporting also may be used to correlate access to prohibited Web sites, like gambling sites, to employee workstations that are commonly infected. These flags can then be passed from IT to the employees' supervisors.

Unfortunately, Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE Enterprise requires login scripts or an installer on each workstation. The other products incorporate deployment capabilities into their administrative consoles, making installation a breeze. In particular, Trend Micro's Anti-Spyware stands out for its lightweight Web management console. It delivered all the functionality we would expect from an enterprise detection tool, accessible from anywhere on the network. IT managers can even access the management Web site while traveling, using a corporate VPN.

CounterSpy's more conventional management console also allows for a great deal of configuration without being too complex or bloated. In contrast, McAfee's flagship ePolicy Orchestrator (ePO) management console configuration is so highly customizable, letting us tweak every aspect of the software, that it became confusing at times.

We did find the Trend Micro product's policy-configuration options more limited than the McAfee product's, but this was true of all the pure plays, as opposed to products that are linked to antivirus suites that use mature management platforms. In fact, the specialized anti-spyware products' configuration settings, such as definition updates, installation and scan schedules, are more limited across the board compared with the McAfee and F-Secure antivirus-plus-anti-spyware suites. However, after pitting both McAfee's and F-Secure's products against rivals that focus only on spyware removal, we found that the spyware-focused products were much more effective at eradicating malware. Frankly, this surprised us--we expected the threat analysis experts at antivirus companies to be well-versed in finding malicious software. Those who use F-Secure or McAfee for antivirus needs should give their anti-spyware modules a test run, but others likely won't find them compelling enough to buy a bundled virus/spyware/firewall suite.All the products let us perform real-time and scheduled scans (each product uses a single scanning engine and spyware definition file for both scheduled and ad-hoc scans). We could schedule our scans nightly, weekly or monthly. Real-time scans are ad hoc, one-off scans that run immediately when initiated from the admin console. These are useful when an employee calls your helpdesk for support, but they shouldn't be confused with the active protection environment--an always-on scan--that all the products offer.

McAfee's scanner operated a bit differently when providing active protection. The company told us its active protection renders spyware useless, but it won't clean up all traces of it until a scheduled scan is done, which the company recommends you do nightly. The other products we tested provided active protection but don't take this extra precaution. Spyware software loads libraries into programs like Internet Explorer, and removing those during an active user session can cause problems, according to McAfee.

CA and F-Secure left our test machines considerably hampered after our real-time scans to remove the 30 spyware pieces. This probably was not the fault of the engines, but rather attributable to how the vendors define spyware in their databases. They take pains to make sure that, for example, legit remote administration tools that assist with helpdesk support aren't disabled. Sunbelt's CounterSpy, Trend Micro's Anti-Spyware and Webroot's Spy Sweeper led the pack at scanning and removing spyware threats in real time.

Also, note that spyware isn't spyware to everyone--some companies get all het up and threaten legal action if their software that is installed without the users' knowledge or permission is labeled as, gasp, spyware (DirectRevenue Responds to Lawsuit ). That's why we're not supplying a list of the 30 pieces of malware we used for testing.

File ThatWe evaluated how the products managed and deployed definition files. All the products we tested downloaded their update databases to their management platforms, then deployed them to our managed clients. The downloads are automated, and a setting in the management console let us schedule them automatically. We could determine the version of definition files on all the products from the central management platform. Webroot's Spy Sweeper and McAfee's VirusScan have an edge in larger corporations because IT can deploy update client servers on the same LAN as clients, allowing for quick fixes and conserving bandwidth. We didn't run into problems rolling out new spyware definition files, but you may want to test a limited deployment.

Reporting is also critical to ensure your anti-spyware policies are doing their job. Reports generally include bar and pie charts and tables indicating the number and type of threats found on each workstation. Executive summary reports provide high-level overviews, whereas reports showing spyware discovered provide in-depth detail.

The best graphical executive summaries are from Sunbelt CounterSpy, McAfee VirusScan, Webroot Spy Sweeper and Trend Micro Anti-Spyware. In contrast, the products from CA and Lavasoft offer only text-based reporting; it's hard to extrapolate trends from these summaries. McAfee provides the most customizable reports, but to get the full benefits you must run Microsoft SQL Server. This may mean buying another software license and support contract, so if rich reporting is a must and you've chosen McAfee's product, figure that into your budget.

Most competitors offer some type of alerts and notification; this early warning can be important when a spyware outbreak occurs. Only two products, those from McAfee and F-Secure, provide alerts over SNMP that integrate with central alerting and monitoring tools. All others rely on e-mail or pop-ups on administrator desktops, which we found acceptable. Sunbelt allows end-user pop-up notification, but we think that may confuse users and increase helpdesk calls. We could forward most alerts to SMS-capable cell phones or text pagers.

Final TallySunbelt CounterSpy Enterprise wins our Editor's Choice award for its modern interface design, ease of deployment and ability to remove what we threw at it. Trend Micro's low-priced Anti-Spyware for SMBs and Webroot's Spy Sweeper Enterprise were hot on Sunbelt's heels, though, and are good choices for any enterprise. Those partial to Web administration consoles should look at Trend Micro's offering.

McAfee's Anti-Spyware Enterprise and F-Secure's Anti-Virus Client Security are modules of these companies' Active VirusScan and Policy Manager suites, respectively. Shops that have relationships with these vendors will find both functional but not up to the level of our three leaders. Anti-Spyware Enterprise was the only product we tested to offer role-based administration, but it cannot undelete mistakenly removed items.

Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE Enterprise and CA's eTrust PestPatrol Corporate Edition brought up the rear. Ad-Aware lacks a quarantine function that would let admins undo mistaken removal of necessary elements, and we found it hard to deploy. CA's PestPatrol was hurt by its inability to restore our test machines to working order, high purchase price and text-only reporting.

We set a pricing scenario of 1,000 users and requested 24/7 support for one year. Prices ranged from a low of $11 per user to a high of $17.28, with an average of $14.28 per user. One year's support was included; thereafter, support averaged 30 percent of the purchase price. Remember that this software is subscription-based--recurring charges generally average 30 percent of the initial purchase price each year after the first. When budgeting, nail down ongoing costs.

It wasn't easy to declare a winner, but CounterSpy Enterprise covered all the bases from our systems administrator's point of view. Its spyware detection and prevention were excellent. CounterSpy told us it detected 105 "threats" on the Windows XP client and 132 on the Windows 2000 machine and restored both test PCs to good health quickly. After a single scan we found that our browsers, which had been weighed down by multiple unwanted toolbars and other BHOs, were devoid of nonstandard "search assistants." The number of unwanted running processes also was drastically reduced, more so than with the other products we tested.Another critical area where CounterSpy more than exceeded our expectations is in centralized management. The Counterspy Enterprise Admin Console let us easily create policies, deploy agents, configure automated scanning and updating, and generally observe the status of the machines on which the product had been deployed. When creating the policy that we deployed to our workstations, for example, Enterprise Admin let us control which locations and files were scanned, specify threats to be excluded from removal, set up notifications, and configure what we wanted to do with the spyware it found. Enterprise Admin Console's speedy installation and deployment, clean and lightweight feel, and focus on quick, intuitive access to scanning, updates, network monitoring and reports won us over. Viewing reports required no more than a couple of clicks, and Enterprise Admin gave us detailed information on the threats contained in its database.

Installation was easy, and CounterSpy accurately detected our test bed Active Directory structure and both client machines. We didn't change the default policy because we found the out-of-the-box settings suitable for our tests, but we could have turned off spyware checking of cookies, registry entries and processes. Although we wouldn't recommend that approach, it's nice to have the flexibility.

We downloaded and updated agent components and threat database files easily on our test systems. Agent deployment was especially rapid, and we liked having a status bar that provided clear data on when agents were finished installing. We could choose to schedule fully automated scans, or we could target specific computers or the entire enterprise for on-demand scanning. On-demand scanning, like deploying agents, includes a status bar that provides feedback on the status of the scan. This may not seem like a big deal, but it was sorely missed on some of the other products, like McAfee's.

CounterSpy includes a powerful Active Protection feature, which monitored changes to our systems to determine possible threats. We could configure this process as well through the admin console. Part of what makes this product so effective is Sunbelt's CounterSpy Research Center, a team dedicated to tracking down the latest threats and updating the Sunbelt threat database. We also were impressed by Sunbelt's ThreatNet spyware reporting system (available to CounterSpy customers and included with every seat). It offered the best reporting in this review. Using Crystal Reports we could generate any of seven predefined reports that included post-scan information on infected machines, machine history, a list of threats found and an executive summary. We could present our data as numeric values, bar graphs or pie charts.

Given its all-around excellent performance, we expected CounterSpy to be expensive. Instead, at just $11 per user in our scenario, CounterSpy is one of the most aggressively priced anti-spyware products on the market.

CounterSpy Enterprise 1.5. Sunbelt Software, (800) 688-8404, (727) 562-0101.

Although Sunbelt took the top prize for this review, Trend Micro's Anti-Spyware (formerly an Intermute product) came in a very strong second. In fact, it was only our preference for CounterSpy's client-server management console that tipped the scale. The CounterSpy interface is a conventional Windows object, whereas Trend Micro's is Web-based. We think systems administrators would prefer an interface that more closely emulates the usual Microsoft management environment. In the end, though, that's a matter of personal choice--some will prefer Trend Micro's excellent Web management console that can be accessed from any physical location on the network, or remotely over a VPN.Trend Micro says Anti-Spyware delivers best-in-class spyware detection and removal. We couldn't agree more, and it does it at a price that's as low as CounterSpy. Anti-Spyware excelled in all six major testing areas, especially in the critical detection and removal category. This tool synced quickly with our Active Directory to detect our test client machines, and deployment and installation status bars showed us exactly what was happening and let us know when agents were completely deployed. During our tests we had some initial difficulty deploying to our Win2K client, but resending the package solved the problem. We could launch scans from the Web console on a scheduled or on-demand basis. The on-demand capabilities of this product were particularly appealing--we felt that we were in the driver's seat, capable of controlling scans to any number of machines. As it scanned our systems, Anti-Spyware reported back to the Web console what it was doing at all times.

Anti-Spyware removed our standard 30 pieces of malware to the extent that both test machines were restored to full functionality. On the Windows 2000 machine, it listed 71 threats as found and 1,135 items as cleaned. On the Windows XP machine, it found 74 threats and cleaned 1,116 items. In both cases, all spyware-related toolbars were removed from our browsers, and all other programs loaded normally. The Trend Micro product not only removed almost all known spyware files from the client machines, but it also removed most of the malicious programs that were acting as hosts to install them.Another attractive feature is that the product runs invisibly in the background on client machines, which means fewer helpdesk calls from users confused by warning messages. You don't want to burden your end users with spyware-detection concerns, and chances are, most users in a Trend Micro-protected environment won't even be aware of its presence.

The Anti-Spyware policy-based management console let us perform updates, application monitoring and automated scanning, and the product's reporting capabilities were excellent. We could choose from online or printed reports that are generated through MySQL. As with the other best-in-class products in this review, the reports provide colorful charts and can be configured in multiple ways.

Trend Micro Anti-Spyware for Small and Medium Businesses 3.0. Trend Micro, (800) 228-5651, (408) 257-1500.

Another heavy hitter in this review is Spy Sweeper. It was easy to deploy; we could choose a login script, an internal software management system or a group policy in Active Directory. As with all the products we tested, we used Active Directory. Integration with our test network was seamless, and Spy Sweeper detected our client PCs immediately. The management console was lightweight and easy to manage. Client deployment to both machines was quick, and we were greeted with status indicators and a decisive green check when deployment finished.

Webroot maintains a comprehensive database of current threats, and Spy Sweeper made it easy to get the latest updates and definitions, both manually and automatically using the administration console and a click of the mouse. We could scan clients manually at will, or we could schedule scans to run as a fully automated process. Like the other favorites in this review, Spy Sweeper offered status indicators during sweeps to let us know exactly what was happening.Spy Sweeper did a solid job removing our 30 pieces of spyware and preventing re-infection. After our test sweep, both machines were again operational. Browser functionality was restored in both cases, with only one remaining toolbar on the XP machine. In its initial sweep of our clients, Spy Sweeper said it detected 166 and 177 items, respectively, on the Windows 2000 and XP machines. Because of Webroot's commitment to keeping track of the latest threats and updating its database, the results of the test scan were impressive.

A particularly strong attribute of Spy Sweeper is its detailed reports, which let us dig into and analyze our results. Like Trend Micro's Anti-Spyware, Spy Sweeper can use a SQL Server database, but it also comes with a prepackaged database of its own for those not running SQL. A nice touch.Spy Sweeper's management console offers a range of configuration options, but with a focus on simplicity. Updating definition files was fast, and it was easy to cascade the updates to the enterprise environment simply by dragging and dropping. The admin console user interface made it easy to configure and push client installs, simply by checking empty boxes next to highly visible client icons. Add scan scheduling and clear alert notifications, and we found this to be an appealing and easy-to-use management interface.

Spy Sweeper Enterprise 2.1. Webroot Software, (800) 772-9383, (303) 442-3813.

The centerpiece of McAfee VirusScan is its ePolicy Orchestrator management console. In testing we found VirusScan Enterprise to be a powerful tool with which systems administrators can manage virus and spyware protection across the enterprise. However, to use its anti-spyware service, you must have the antivirus component installed--McAfee VirusScan is a complete security suite, with spyware protection making up just a portion of the package. This is a benefit if your enterprise runs McAfee as its antivirus application. If not, it will be difficult to justify switching to McAfee just for spyware protection.

Although we like the ePolicy Orchestrator console, Anti-Spyware Enterprise took substantially longer to install than rivals. This was most likely caused by the default polling period that ePO used to check in with its agents installed on the workstation. As with the other products we tested, we set up the ePO to recognize our client machines by identifying Active Directory containers, and it located our Windows XP and 2000 machines with ease.

As its name suggests, ePO let us configure a security policy that is inherited across the network. Of all the products we tested, McAfee allowed for the greatest degree of customization in terms of policy management. For this test, we configured a policy for our client machines before deployment. We were disappointed, given the slowness of the install, that there's no way to determine the progress of an installation or deployment until the agent is polled again.

Anyone familiar with antivirus products knows definition files must be downloaded periodically to keep antivirus and anti-spyware definitions up to date, and with Anti-Spyware Enterprise it was easy to configure our client machines with automatic updates.

The results of the McAfee scan indicated that 733 total items were detected on the Windows 2000 machine, while 1,145 items were found on the XP machine. Although this scan eliminated most of the malware installed, a small spyware footprint remained. However, the McAfee product did restore full functionality to both client machines. Browsers were restored to their original states, browser helper toolbars were removed, and we saw a drastic reduction in unwanted registry items.McAfee Anti-Spyware Enterprise and Active VirusScan Suite. McAfee, (888) 847-8766.

As with McAfee's product, the concept of integrating anti-spyware into a flagship antivirus package has both pluses and minuses. On the plus side, if yours is an F-Secure house, installing the anti-spyware add-on is a logical choice. If, however, you use some other enterprise antivirus application, you'd need a compelling reason to make the switch. Just like McAfee's suite, the F-Secure anti-spyware package is dependent on the parent antivirus program, and buying the item alone is not an option.

Anti-Virus Client Security (AVCS) made a so-so showing in the critical area of spyware detection and removal, faring slightly worse than McAfee's product and leaving much to be desired compared with the top performers in this review. After our initial scan and reboot, client machine performance was still significantly hampered. AVCS identified and removed 133 and 198 instances of malware on our respective Windows 2000 and XP client test machines. F-Secure's scanning engines removed several unwanted programs, but browser functionality was still disabled on one client, while a BHO remained in the other.

The dominant feature of the F-Secure product is its management console. In addition, F-Secure Client Security integrated seamlessly with Active Directory and allowed for easy deployment of packages to our detected clients. An added bonus is AVCS's integrated firewall, though we wish it didn't pop up quite so prominently on the end-user desktop; we foresee some confusion. F-Secure's product easily met our testing criteria with its four scanning methods: real-time scanning, e-mail scanning, Web traffic scanning and manual scanning.

One of our gripes with the F-Secure offering is that it took a long time to push packages and updates to our client machines. However, AVCS is a top performer in terms of ease of use and effectiveness as a systems management tool. The Policy Manager let us create highly customized, detailed policies concerning installation, types and times of viruses and spyware scanned, actions taken, reporting and notification. To round out the review of this Finnish antivirus product, we would stress that the anti-spyware component is a satisfactory compliment to the F-Secure total package.

Anti-Virus Client Security and Policy Manager 6.0. F-Secure, (408) 938-6700.

We move from Finland over to Sweden and well-known anti-spyware vendor Lavasoft. This brand is readily recognizable to many because of its strong reputation as a leading provider of free anti-spyware to the consumer market. The product tested in this review, Lavasoft Ad-Aware SE Enterprise, is a combination of Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE Professional Edition and the Ad-Axis Management Console.Ad-Aware SE did an excellent job eradicating spyware from our test machines. There is no doubt the scanning technology works. Unfortunately, throughout all phases of testing, Ad-Aware SE seemed as if it were a cobbled version of its two parts, rather than an integrated whole. In fact, this was the only product we tested that required us to install the client software on each machine by hand. We actually needed to configure three separate items for the product to work: the Ad-Axis Management Console, the Ad-Axis clients and the Ad-Aware software. Of course, the Ad-Aware component could easily be deployed to client machines using start-up scripts, but this solution is still much more involved than what rivals had to offer. This factor, more than anything, pulled Ad-Aware out of contention for one of the top spots in this review.

In terms of overall functionality, Ad-Aware SE does meet all of the testing criteria. Once we had it set up and configured properly, the product performed admirably in the detection and removal of unwanted objects. Our initial scan and reboot showed that Ad-Aware SE detected 166 and 177 objects on the respective Windows 2000 and XP machines. Almost all unwanted programs and registry items were removed, and the functionality of browsers in both client machines was restored. Its Ad-Watch feature provided real-time monitoring of our end-user environment, and Process-Watch allowed for viewing and termination of running processes. In the current version, notifications are available through e-mail only, but this will likely change in future iterations.Another area where Ad-Aware SE will need significant improvement to compete with the big dogs is its reporting capabilities. The polished reports offered by its competitors just weren't there. In fact, text files were the main source of information available following a scan, and this format is difficult to use when information is needed quickly.

Although we consider Ad-Aware SE not quite ready for enterprise-level service, it's an excellent spyware removal tool, and we'll be watching to see whether future releases move toward a more integrated package.

Ad-Aware SE Enterprise (combination of AD-Aware SE Professional and Ad-Axis Management Console). Lavasoft, +358-9-693-2220.

CA's eTrust PestPatrol is an easy-to-use tool that deployed well and met all testing criteria, but it was deficient in detecting and removing spyware. The PestPatrol management console found our client machines without a hitch. CA's anti-spyware engine is based on Microsoft's .Net infrastructure and is advertised as able to access a wide range of known malware. However, our testing showed that it wasn't as effective as rivals: The CA product detected and removed 82 and 76 "pests" on the respective Windows 2000 and Windows XP clients. But numerous BHOs remained on the Windows 2000 machine, several registry items were passed over, and IE wasn't usable on the XP machine. The browser would not open, there were persistent error messages, and we were deluged with requests to send error reports to Microsoft.

As with Lavasoft's reports, those produced by CA's product could not compare with the leaders in this review. PestPatrol's reports, while thorough, are provided in a simple text format that won't impress the front office.

Still, PestPatrol did excel in a number of areas. In terms of syncing with Active Directory, it really couldn't have done better. The installation and configuration aspects of our testing were impressive in that each step was accentuated by status bars. The process of "pushing" spyware detection software to our two client machines was easier than on any other tested product. We simply checked a box and the client packages were deployed. From an end user perspective, PestPatrol is invisible on the client, which means fewer calls to the helpdesk.

PestPatrol let us create start-up, scheduled and on-demand scans from the management console and, in general, provided intuitive feel, ease of deployment and quick configuration. But it was weak in the most important area: spyware detection and removal.eTrust PestPatrol Corporate Edition 5. Computer Associates International, (800) 225-5224, (631) 342-6000.

Christopher T. Beers is a manager, systems operations, for Time Warner Cable Broadband Division, where he oversees daily operations for high-speed data and VoIP for the Northeast, including Solaris and Linux administration. Write to him at [email protected].

Our test bed consisted of three computers: one Windows 2003 server, one Windows XP client and one Windows 2000 client, all patched with critical updates from Microsoft. All machines were members of the same Active Directory domain served from the Windows 2003 server. Users were created in the AD domain and given local admin rights on the two workstations, something all too common in corporate computing environments.

We installed the products' central management components on our Windows 2003 AD Server and deployed the anti-spyware software on each client, automatically from the AD server where possible. The central management server had to configure client settings, perform real-time and scheduled scans, manage and deploy updates of spyware-definition files, alert us to spyware outbreaks and provide reports of client activity.

To test the effectiveness of each anti-spyware program, we designed tests representative of a real-world software deployment in a business setting. Each vendor's product was run against two infected machines to see how well they removed spyware on clients.We infected the machines with spyware that's floating around on the Internet, including items commonly found on gambling and pornographic sites--prime places for embedded spyware to be loaded. We'd catch grief from some of the makers of our test malware (and possibly our corporate legal department) if we published the names of the files. Discretion being the better part of valor (and survival), we'll leave it to your imagination.

This test was typical of an initial deployment at an enterprise with heavily infected machines and no anti-spyware application. The testing was tough on the anti-spyware products and represented an extreme example of an infected end-user desktop. We forced the software to remove spyware from computers that were so infected they were hardly usable. In fact, after infecting the computers with 30 known spyware programs and rebooting a couple of times, we couldn't even sign in! We had to manually remove a registry entry that was forcing a piece of spyware to consume all CPU resources on both clients. Internet Explorer would not even load on our Windows XP client, instead prompting a box telling us it had encountered an error and wanted to phone home to Microsoft. On the Windows 2000 client, Internet Explorer had so many search bars (called browser-helper objects, or BHOs) loaded that there were only about two inches of available screen space left for actual Web page content when browsing sites--if IE had been functioning on our Windows XP client, we suspect the same would be true there. The Windows Explorer (file-browsing) application would not start on the Windows XP client, but that's to be expected because IE and Explorer are tied together so tightly .

Besides testing the anti-spyware software's ability to detect and remove spyware, we also tested features that are critical to enterprise deployments of such software. The best anti-spyware software would be ineffective in large organizations if it couldn't be deployed from a central location, controlled from that same location and offer some level of reporting on its effectiveness.

Measuring the effectiveness of each vendor's anti-spyware software was a challenge because spyware makes many changes to the Windows registry and file system. Spyware researchers have their work cut out for them. For our testing, indications of a clean machine included restored functionality of IE and Explorer without BHOs, inspection of running processes and services that should not be there, a Windows system tray that had no unauthorized programs and no pop-ups while using the computer. For example, after IE was started we made sure it contained no extra search bars and that it did not generate traffic to Web sites we were not browsing. Because the computers were base installs of Windows OSs, we verified that the processes in the task manager were only those that belonged on a freshly installed machine. Just to make sure we didn't miss anything, we used network analyzers to view any unauthorized traffic that remaining spyware would generate.

All Network Computing product reviews are conducted by current or former IT professionals in our Real-World Labs® or partner labs, according to our own test criteria. Vendor involvement is limited to assistance in configuration and troubleshooting. Network Computing schedules reviews based solely on our editorial judgment of reader needs, and we conduct tests and publish results without vendor influence.We cast a wide net for this review, inviting Allume Systems, Aluria Software, Apreo, Computer Associates, Determina, ESET Software, Finjan Software, F-Secure, Intermute, Lavasoft, McAfee, Merijn. org, Microsoft & The Giant Co., Omniquad, Panda Software, PepiMK/Spybot-S&D, Sana Security, Sunbelt Software, SurfControl, Symantec, Tenebril, Trend Micro, Webroot Software, Websense and Whole Security.

Determina said its product did not meet all our entry criteria. Eset Software and SurfControl did not participate for logistical reasons. Tenebril, Microsoft, Panda and Omniquad bowed out, citing pending new releases. The other vendors did not reply to our invitation.

Spyware is a big problem that's only getting bigger. The only way to put a definitive halt to infections is to lock down your end users' workstations, removing all admin rights to install software. If that's impossible in your organization, then you need anti-spyware software.

We tested offerings from Computer Associates, F-Secure, Lavasoft, McAfee, Sunbelt Software, Trend Micro and Webroot Software that can be deployed from a central management console, provide reporting and alerts, and allow for scheduled and real-time scanning to prevent new infestations. McAfee's and F-Secure's products are modules of their antivirus suites and cannot be purchased separately. If you have deals with these companies, you may be able to get a good price on serviceable anti-spyware software.

However, if you want top-of-the-line protection, we found the top three standalone anti-spyware apps did a better job. We especially liked Sunbelt Software's CounterSpy Enterprise, our Editor's Choice winner, and Trend Micro's Anti-Spyware for SMBs, which came in a close second. The main difference between the two: Sunbelt has a conventional administration console while Trend's is Web-based. Either will inoculate your desktops against most spyware.


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