Adware, spyware, Wally calls it like it is.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Wally's commentary.]

If you've got a computer and you're on the Net, the odds are about 9 to 1 that you've got programs on your computer that track where you go and what you do online.

In this Postcard from the Digital Age we're going to talk about spyware, or is it adware. More on that in a moment.

These are programs that lurk in the dark recesses of your hard drive, watching what you do and where you go online. They can threaten your privacy and the performance of your computer.

The companies that use them tend to call the programs adware because they deliver ads to your computer. Privacy advocates call them spyware because they track your movement like an intelligence service. But a lot of it is just plain nasty so I call it nastyware.

Nastyware can splash pop-up windows all over your screen. Nastyware can track your web surfing and send that information to someone else, while you go about your online business without a clue that this is happening.

Some nastyware can do really evil stuff, like hijack your computer and use it to attack others or send spam. But you don't have to worry much about that unless you visit porn sites.

Many of those sites download nastyware to your computer without even letting you know what's happening. We call that a "drive-by download."

It's not a problem for most of us because we don't visit that kind of site. What is a problem is that most nastyware winds up on your computer and mine because we put it there.

Some nastyware doesn't seem all that nasty. It actually helps you do things online that you want to do, and do them more easily. That's why a nastyware program called Gator is on my computer.

When Jeff McFadden founded Gator in 1998, he wanted to use Net technology to do the kind of advertising he couldn't do in print or on TV. He figured technology could track what people actually did online so advertisers could craft their pitches more effectively, and then deliver them at the opportune moment.

If that was all he did, McFadden's company wouldn't be much different than many others. But, McFadden figured out a way to get me to download the program that would track my surfing. He designed his program to be helpful to me, so I wanted to download it. And I did.

Gator remembers my passwords for all kinds of sites. It helps me fill in online shopping forms. That makes my life easier.

Advertisers like Motorola love Gator because they use it to gather data about what folks like me do online. Then, when I visit a site that has cell phone information, Gator delivers a pop-up telling me what Motorola has to offer.

So, what's the problem? There isn't a privacy problem if I don't mind Motorola and other advertisers getting the information that they get. But there could still be a computer performance problem.

That's because many of us have several nastyware programs on our computer and every one uses up memory when it runs. A tech support friend of mine says that he suspects nastyware whenever someone calls him because their computer is running slower and slower. He's usually right.

To keep this stuff off your computer, just don't download it. Most nastyware is presented as helpful, a program that will help you do things or save you money. That sounds good.

But the details of what the nastyware program will do are usually hidden deep in the User Licensing Agreement. Most of us don't bother reading those.

My advice: just say no unless you're know what you're getting. Just say no unless you can remove the program. If you're not sure, just say no.

If your computer is running slower than it used to, nastyware could be the culprit. There are programs that will check your computer for nastyware and get rid of the stuff you don't want. Use them.

The fact is, my friend, that most nastyware problems are self-inflicted. That means that both prevention and cure are up to you.