If you have ever scanned your system with an antivirus (AV) product before, then you have most likely been alerted to the existence of POTENTIALLY UNWANTED PROGRAMS, or PUPs, on your laptop or mobile device. The term POTENTIALLY UNWANTED APPLICATIONS, or PUA, is often used interchangeably in this regard, but what’s at stake is often the same. Encountering such components are known to juice the security and performance of a computing device, and even exploit the privacy of the one using it.
What’s even more strange is how these programs wind up on a user’s device to begin with. Documented cases of pre-installed malware aside, popular applications, whether physically or virtually packaged, are often distributed alongside “special offers.” The mechanisms for opting-out these packages are typically illusive, resulting in users installing software they don’t need or will never use. Hence, the term potentially unwanted programs is born.
The Difference between a PUP and PUA
Although similar in nature, there is a notable difference between a PUA and PUP. An application, in general, will almost always involve input from a user (think Microsoft Word, Email and SMS, or your favorite banking app). A program, on the other hand, is software at its most basic level. Programs can be written to simply execute a set of instructions which do not involve input from a user. This is how most utilities and viruses take shape.
A PUA and PUP are similar in their capabilities of breaching a user’s security and taking certain actions without their informed consent. In this sense, potentially unwanted programs exhibit the properties of spyware, monitoring the activities of a user’s local and online behavior. When sensitive data is intercepted and sold to potential advertisers, a PUA can take the form of adware. It might even display intrusive and inescapable advertising itself.
Apart from these apparent threats, potentially unwanted programs can also act as stressors to system resources. Data plan consumption, excessive bandwidth usage, and the draining of virtual memory are the results of a PUA left unaddressed. In other cases, it might even compromise disk space and processing power by injecting loads of advertising data into system memory and changing the settings of browsers and other system software.
How to Prevent Potentially Unwanted Programs
By now, it should be of no surprise that potentially unwanted programs make up for nearly one-fourth of all malware infections. From tracking a user’s whereabouts and serving them content based on their browsing history, to modifying browser settings which railroad users into forfeiting their personal information; the behavior of a PUA is reprehensible and indeed undesirable.
So how can you protect your device from this range of unethical and malicious activity? For one, you should use antivirus (AV) software regularly and pay the same amount of attention to potentially unwanted programs as you would to malicious software detected at each scan. Most users ignore PUP and PUA alerts—particularly because they aren’t displayed in red-colored text, or some other visual cue denoting an emergency or danger. Likewise, you should also pay attention to the source of your downloads and avoid untrustworthy websites altogether.
Malicious software often takes advantage of a user’s lack of attention. This is also true for non-malicious (albeit questionable) software that comes bundled with popular application software. Ignoring the terms and conditions and end user license agreements (EULA), and failing to opt-out of supplementary toolbars and extensions can lead to unexpected consequences. Other times, malicious software is disguised as legitimate software, making the uninstalling of potentially unwanted programs even more difficult.