There is a new security risk out there that is probably affecting you right now. Someone out there is likely to be collecting information on your computer use, from the websites you visit, the usernames and passwords you type in potentially including online banking access details. All without your knowledge.
Tracking is done by programs on your computer, running silently in the background, and without your permission, they send information about you back to their masters. At the most innocent level, these programs allow advertisers to build a unique profile of your habits to better target you, and at the most devious level they can capture and compromise any personal or secure information they like, all without your direct permission.
These kinds of programs are known collectively as "Spyware", because they spy on your computer activity. And there is a good chance you have these programs installed right now, running away in the background without your knowledge.
How can this sort of thing be legal you may ask?
When you download a program and install it, there is often a legal agreement presented, known as an "End User Licence Agreement", or EULA. These agreements are often quite long and are written by the software provider, often to protect their interests. It is also very common for people to merely click "I Agree" without even looking twice at the agreement. More and more commonly, these agreements provide for very high levels of unfetted access to your computer, and while they are not necessarily "ethical" for the sneaky way they do things, they are for the moment legal.
The good news is, you can fight back, and one of the best little tools for fighting back is known as Spysweeper.
This free product runs in the background of your machine and monitors it for certain "fingerprints" of known Spyware applications. When it finds one, either through a search or an auto-detect process, it gives you the option to stop it from running and quarantine it, much like an anti-virus program. Download and trial is free, and you can purchase a subscription to use the service where a database of "fingerprints" of known Spyware products is maintained.
You can download this program yourself from http://www.webroot.com/wb/downloads