Everyone has heard of the term ‘computer virus’ and many people have also heard of the term ‘malware’. Unfortunately there is a less well-known term – a Potentially Unwanted Program (PUP).
This is software that may be clogging up your computer, yet is not classed as a virus or malware. They can cause problems when they are downloaded and installed, but what makes a PUP different is that when you install one, you are giving consent for the installation.
PUPs typically use up large amounts of system resources because they are running in the background and generally slow down your computer – sometimes drastically. From changing your search provider for no reason, adding toolbars to your internet browser or giving you pop-up adverts, PUPs can be annoying and troublesome. They are also easy to get.
Newer strains are information gatherers, providing data about your browsing habits and other information which is valuable to someone and the information is sent out for data collection purposes. Some are used to spread actual malware. Not all are as bad as this, but they all share an unwelcome trait – you are probably better off without them.
How do you get them?
Sometimes they piggy back onto other downloads, such as from software websites where there are bright green ‘Start Download’ buttons everywhere. You click on the button expecting one piece of free software and end up getting something else entirely or something in addition to what you expected.
It’s not just dodgy toolbars or free software designers either. Some big names bundle well-meaning PUPs in their downloads, for example Adobe Reader can give you the option to download an on-demand virus scanning program unless you spot it on the webpage, or a Java download asking if you want to install a toolbar, change your search engine or other setting when installing the program.
The more dodgy variety of PUP relies on you not wanting to read through the long licensing blurb displayed on the screen (the EULA). By clicking on the ‘Accept’ button, you are effectively giving them permission to install and in the case of the dodgy variety, protection from any legal action.
The question is that it’s easy to click away and miss something – you do need to watch what you click on.
Why do you get them?
“Free” software makers make money from them – for example, every toolbar installed earns them money.
Companies that give you the option to download them in addition to their own product, may also make money promoting the additional software.
PUPs are also friendly with each other, so when you get one it may bring along some of its PUP friends as well, to make some more money on the side.
Won’t my anti-virus program catch them?
Not necessarily. The issue is that technically, a PUP can be legal software in spite of the way it is used and some antivirus vendors choose to be strict about detecting them, whilst others are not so strict. Even if it is not switched on by default, many antivirus programs have a setting to configure the antivirus to look for PUPs, so it’s worth checking yours.
The important thing is to be watchful, especially when downloading and installing programs.