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Will Sturgeon

Special to ZDNet

Businesses have long known about the need to protect themselves from viruses and hackers but many are now waking up to the pressing need to specifically protect themselves from spyware.

The vendors are now pouncing upon the opportunities created, giving rise to some verbal jousting between security companies. As its name suggests, spyware, which covertly plants itself onto a user’s machine and has the potential to steal data and relay information to its creator, often goes unnoticed, but according to a number of industry sources it is fast becoming a priority concern for businesses.

According to Kailash Ambwani, CEO of FaceTime, even businesses who think they run a tight ship are “shocked” when shown how much spyware has found its way onto their systems–often through employee use of peer-to-peer applications or by simply visiting websites where such code lies in wait.

“Users will go to a website and unbeknownst to them they may be downloading all this spyware. It happens on peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa as well and while some of it is fairly benign adware there is some real nasty stuff out there.”

Ambwani believes many businesses have their heads in the sand when it comes to such threats and believes many could be unknowingly infected with spyware such as key stroke logging tools which have the potential to steal sensitive data. According to a recent survey by Equation Research only 10 per cent of US companies have implemented anti-spyware solutions despite the fact 70 per cent of respondents said they now see it as a priority. Such a gulf suggests sales in spyware protection may be ripe for an upturn.

Education over time means businesses are beginning to realize the full extent of the threat. Analyst house Gartner defines the evolution of spyware as rising from “occasional nuisance to something that wastes resources and compromises the integrity of corporate systems, applications and data”.

Computer Associate’s Security Advisor Team currently has 28,000 objects in its spyware database and has recorded 1,100 new unique spyware cases in the last month.

Although companies in the security space agree on the need for spyware protection in their product lines it seems that is as far as the agreement stretches for at least two vendors–with CA and McAfee falling out over claims they have made.

Last week, McAfee claimed to have released the “industry’s first enterprise class anti-spyware solution”. It was a claim that raised eyebrows at CA, which the previous week had released the first fruit from its acquisition of Pest Patrol–also “an enterprise grade anti-spyware solution” in the company’s own words.

This isn’t the first time CA and McAfee have found themselves in opposite corners over claims one or the other has made. In September 2003 the pair had a public falling out over the impact of CA securing an exclusive contract with former McAfee reseller Tolerant.