First Look: Microsoft AntiSpyware

Microsoft has entered the anti-spyware business with the launch of a free beta version of Microsoft AntiSpyware. The beta software is now availableand covers all the basics a PC user needs when it comes to spyware and adware detection and removal.

In fact, Microsoft AntiSpyware, downloadable here, really is a collection of security and privacy tools that bundles a host of features, such as one that alerts you if someone tries to piggyback bandwidth off your wireless network.

The package is simply a branded version of Giant Company Software's AntiSpyware program, which has been on the market for some time. Microsoft purchased Giant last year. The 6.4MB program works with Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Server 2003.

Paul Bryan, Microsoft's director of product management for its Security, Business and Technology unit, wouldn't say whether the Microsoft AntiSpyware program would remain free after beta testing ends in July.

In its current form, Microsoft AntiSpyware looks like a winner. It has an intuitive interface that will appeal to Microsoft loyalists. The program is broken down into three main tabs: Scanning, Real-Time Protection, and Advanced Tools, which includes privacy and security features. These features are identical to core features in Giant AntiSpyware.

But Microsoft skeptics will likely find plenty to criticize. For example, a browser-settings lockdown feature can only restore Internet Explorer browser settings to point back to MSN as your home page, IE as your default browser, and MSN Search as your default search engine. Another feature that erases your history files works primarily with Microsoft programs--skipping FireFox, Opera, and AOL software.

Microsoft the Exterminator

The primary Scanning function of Microsoft AntiSpyware is fast and thorough. I found it able to identify the same three spyware threats that veteran spyware detectors Spybot Search and Destroy and Ad-Aware found on the system I used for testing. In fact, during my informal test, Microsoft AntiSpyware's scanning engine was able to scour my drive about twice as fast as Spybot Search and Destroy. Ad-Aware, however, was the fastest of the three.

Microsoft AntiSpyware offers a clean and easy-to-use interface.
Once threats are identified, Microsoft AntiSpyware displays detailed information about detected programs including where a threat is located on your computer, a risk rating, and a recommended action to take. From the Scanning tab you can also schedule the program to perform scans daily, weekly, or monthly, allowing for automatic deletion or quarantining of spyware once it's detected.

To keep spyware and adware signatures up to date, Microsoft relies on the SpyNet community network for signature updates. SpyNet is a network of computer users who agree to share information about spyware with one another and maintain an updated list of known spyware and adware signatures.

Real-Time Protection

Microsoft AntiSpyware goes well beyond scanning and removing spyware. A host of functions found under the Real-Time Protection tab help you protect key system processes, applications, and Internet features often targeted by adware and spyware makers and hackers.

For example, under the System Agents tab, the program keeps watch over your dial-up and Wi-Fi connections, alerting you if a third party tries to access your network. Other aspects of real-time protection are Spam Zombie Prevention, which makes sure your PC isn't turned into a spam-spewing machine, and Winsock Layer Service Provider, which assures you that spyware isn't monitoring and recording your network traffic.

The Application Agent component keeps watch over key applications and processes--for example, your Microsoft Startup Files--and makes sure that the list of programs that load automatically when Windows starts is not added to without your knowledge. Other application lockdowns that prevent programs from being modified by third-party applications apply to Internet Explorer browser toolbars, bookmarks, and your Start page.

Microsoft Antispyware gives real-time pop-up warnings that alert you when attempts are made to change your PC's settings.
When I installed a weather-monitoring application during my tests, several real-time warnings popped up from my system toolbar notifying me of attempts to change my Internet Explorer browser settings. A dialog box allowed me to accept the change or deny it.

Advanced Features

The Advanced Features tab offers three tools: Browser Hijack Restore, System Explorer, and Tracks Erase.

As the name implies, Browser Hijack Restore allows you to restore your browser settings to Microsoft defaults. Microsoft really missed the boat here by including support for restoring its Internet Explorer browser, but leaving out support for the competing FireFox, Opera, and Netscape browsers.

Even worse, restore settings for this feature turn your browser into a Microsoft advertisement, with links back to MSN.com, MSN Search, and the MSN Search Toolbar.

The second advanced feature, System Explorer, allows advanced users to modify settings like their browser helper objects, Winsock configurations, and Windows host files.

The third, Track Erase, lets you clear the histories of a number of different programs automatically. The feature lists the programs it identifies running on your system; to clear their histories, simply check the box next to the name. If the IE browser is checked, for example, you will not leave any Web tracks the next time you surf with IE. Track Erase will appeal to those on shared systems and to users who insist on privacy.

However, this tool is Microsoft-centric also. Support for erasing the tracks of programs like RealPlayer and Adobe Acrobat as well as ICQ chat histories can be found here. But you will not find support for the FireFox browser or AOL's AIM chat software or AOL client software.

Keep It Free

I liked Microsoft AntiSpyware and see it as a needed addition to Microsoft-authored security tools for average users. My fingers are crossed that Microsoft will keep this collection of security and privacy tools free.

However, I don't recommend that you stop using competing products such as Spybot Search and Destroy or Ad-Aware. It's always a good idea to scan your system with another product (but not at the same time), just to make sure every single spyware and adware application is zapped.

  
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