January 09, 2005

Microsoft Now Offering Beta AntiSpyware

As I mentioned back in October, Microsoft was planning to offer antispyware and antivirus solutions, but hadn't offered any dates. Recognizing the enormity of the spyware problem, Microsoft has since acquired Giant AntiSpyware and is now offering its own beta version via downloads at the "Microsoft® Windows AntiSpyware (Beta)" download page. I've never heard of nor used the Giant software, so unfortunately I can't comment on that product's details or effectiveness. From the Microsoft download page, this was just published on January 7th, 2005.

This CNET News.com article provides much more detail, including Microsoft's quick actions to provide a beta shortly after the acquisition, and additional discussion regarding Microsoft's overall strategy and timing for offering antispyware and antivirus to its customers. I applaud Microsoft's efforts, but wonder how complete and therefore, effective, they will be. At this point, keep in mind it's a beta.

Something is probably better than nothing, as long as its users don't gain a false sense of security -- no one thing provides 100% effective security, simply because security is a process, not a product. Products are tools to implement security measures. There are a number of different antivirus and antispyware programs available on the market. If Microsoft adopts a "single solution" for each, it paints a big red target on them for the malware developers and hackers to attack and exploit, much like the built-in Windows XP firewall (which again, is better than having nothing in place, yet an incomplete solution by itself). This isn't Microsoft's fault per se, it's just that the dominant player is normally the one on whom the malware developers focus their attacks. Microsoft's security record is also well known.

At least the Microsoft name is also well known (although I've never heard of Giant), and it sounds like they are consciously trying to provide solutions which help both their customers and themselves. Other antispyware providers may not: Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal offers similar advice, "Beware of antispyware programs offered via pop-up ads or e-mail spam. Some of these actually are malicious, and will install spyware and adware, rather than expunging it." So don't forget about the well-known and often-recommended spyware solutions. Lastly, it's important to recognize that many computer users are, in themselves, a weak link -- they introduce spyware and other malware to their systems by not being sufficiently self-informed, and thus are unaware of best practices. Check out my prior post, "Practicing Safe Hex", for some great ideas and linked resources. It's an eye-opener.

[Update 1.11.05: Per the comment attached to this post, check out Flexbeta's antispyware comparison review or its printable version. They put the new MS AntiSpyware through its paces, head-to-head against Ad-Aware and Spybot S&D. Their results, while quite encouraging, emphasize an often-made key point: No one antispyware program will detect and clean everything from your system. Thus you may want to consider using multiple antispyware programs to double-check your computer and catch the malware the others left behind. Also, Flexbeta indicates MS may offer their AntiSpyware on a subscription basis, so there may be a cost factor after the beta period has concluded.

In any event, it's good to know there's another antispyware option with potential, hopefully one which will also play nice with Microsoft's operating systems and applications. I found it interesting that the CNET News.com article referenced above included this tidbit: "She [Amy Carroll, director of product management for Microsoft's Security, Business and Technology unit] pointed to a compatibility issue that Microsoft experienced just after the launch of Windows XP Service Pack 2 as partially caused by a hidden spyware application." So it's probably safe to say that Microsoft is attempting to offer a win-win for both their efforts as well as those of their customers. Like antivirus solutions, antispyware needs regular updating for detecting and removing new malware. Should Microsoft charge a subscription fee for a commercial grade product, it's right in line with industry norms. It also increases its chances of being actively developed and supported. In comparison, look what happened with Internet Explorer's stagnation, which was offered for no additional charge.]

[Update 1.13.05: Walt Mossberg at the WSJ chimes in with some mixed comments on MS AntiSpyware: "Unfortunately, the company's first free security program has some serious flaws and lapses. I've been testing Microsoft's antispyware software, called simply Microsoft AntiSpyware, and I can't recommend it, in its present form, over the leading third-party antispyware program I have favored, Webroot's Spy Sweeper." He concludes, "It's good that Microsoft is finally offering users tools to protect their Windows computers. But it's going to have to do much better, and it's going to have to avoid the perception that it's using security as a tool to promote or favor its own products."]

Topic(s):   Privacy & Security
Posted by Jeff Beard

I have read an article oomparing MS's new offering to SpyBot and Ad-Aware (http://www.flexbeta.net/main/articles.php?action=show&id=84). But, this leaves me wondering if these are really shortcomings of Ad-Aware and SpyBot, or if MS's is just being a little overzealous at the risk of preventing people from using some applications that they might legitimately (or not so legitimately) want to run. I guess we'll see.

Posted by: Aaron at January 10, 2005 05:59 PM