An upcoming software release from America Online will add spyware protection to the list of standard features for its broadband and dial-up Internet customers, the company said Tuesday.AOL Spyware Protection will be included with other enhancements with the release of AOL 9.0 Optimized software in coming weeks. The feature will enable AOL users to scan their computer hard drives for spyware or adware programs and, optionally, remove programs that it finds, the company said.Spyware is a generic term describing a variety of different software applications that snoop on an Internet user's activities. Some legal programs monitoring Web surfing behavior or displaying pop-up ads might be considered spyware. However, spyware is often installed and run without the user's knowledge and can do everything from capturing and secretly distributing the information typed on a computer keyboard to giving a remote attacker total access to an Internet-connected computer.The programs have become more common on users' computers and are often bundled with peer-to-peer, file-sharing software like Kazaa, or installed on the sly in "driveby downloads" when users visit a Web site set up to distribute the programs. In recent months, the Federal Trade Commission has joined other government and industry groups in\u00a0warning about the prevalence\u00a0of spyware programs.AOL's anti-spyware features will automatically scan members' hard drives weekly, looking for software programs matching those in a database of spyware and adware applications. In addition to the weekly scans, AOL members can scan their computer at any time by clicking on a new AOL Spyware Protection icon on their computer desktop, AOL said.Schedule features will also allow AOL members to set up daily or weekly scans, or schedule a scan for a specific date and time, the company said.AOL partnered with Aluria Software of Lake Mary, Fla., to provide AOL Spyware Protection. That company makes a product called Spyware Eliminator, but AOL is not bundling that product with its software. Instead, the company worked specifically with Aluria to develop the new anti-spyware feature, according to Andrew Weinstein, AOL spokesman.AOL is not the first ISP to tackle the spyware problem. In October, Atlanta-based ISP Earthlink\u00a0said that it was adding a program called Spyware Blocker to its TotalAccess package of software programs and tools. That product allows users to scan their hard drives and shut down spyware programs.However, AOL claims it is the first ISP to offer automated spyware detection and likens its aggressive approach to detecting spyware to other recent security moves, like disabling Microsoft's Windows Messenger service on subscriber desktops. In October, AOL disabled Windows Messenger Service, after spammers exploited the program, to display pop-up advertisements on Windows desktops."AOL wants to make it as easy as possible for users to address security and safety threats," Weinstein said.Earthlink applauded AOL's decision to add spyware protection, but took issue with the company's claim to be the first premium broadband service to automatically scan for spyware."Our (anti-spyware program) is about choice. We let customers choose when they want to do it. (Earthlink customers) can click the Spyware Blocker option and start a scan, but I guess that's not automatic enough for AOL," said Jerry Grasso, Earthlink spokesman.Earthlink will also be reaching out to nonsubscribers in coming weeks to help fight the spread of spyware by offering a free program, SpyAudit. Internet users will be able to download the program from the Earthlink Web site and use it to scan for spyware programs running on their computer, according to information provided by Earthlink.The anti-spyware features will have some benefit to users and the Internet community, but are more useful as a public relations gesture as AOL tries to hold on to customers, according to Avivah Litan, vice president of financial services at Gartner."AOL is doing what it can to hold on to a shrinking subscriber base. One area they found is to give subscribers extra protection, or the feel of it, so that (subscribers) will stick with them," Litan said.