What is Spyware?

Spyware is any software that installs itself on your computer and starts covertly monitoring your online behavior without your knowledge or permission. Spyware is a kind of malware that secretly gathers information about a person or organization and relays this data to other parties.

In some cases, these may be advertisers or marketing data firms, which is why spyware is sometimes referred to as “adware“. It is installed without user consent by methods such as a drive-by download, a trojan included with a legitimate program or a deceptive pop-up window.

What Spyware can do?

Spyware uses your internet connection to relay personal information such as your name, address, browsing habits, preferences, interests or downloads. Other forms of spyware hijack your browser to point it to another website, cause your device to place calls or send texts automatically, or serve annoying ads even when you are offline. Spyware that steals your username, password or other credentials is referred to as a “keylogger” – an insidious prerequisite for cyber crime.

Spyware can even arrive attached to apparently legitimate programs. If you look carefully, it’s probably mentioned in the small print. It’s more likely to arrive attached to dodgy downloads or via a phishing attack. Spyware can be installed on any device – a PC or laptop, a tablet, iPhone, or Android smartphone.

Spyware Detection

Signs of a spyware infection can include unwanted behaviors and degradation of system performance. It can eat up CPU capacity, disk usage and network traffic. Stability issues such as applications freezing, failure to boot, difficulty connecting to the internet and system crashes are also common. Spyware is sneaky, and it’s very good at hiding itself.

Look out for the following clues:

  • Increasing sluggishness and slow response.
  • Unexpected advertising messages or pop-ups (spyware is often packaged with adware).
  • New toolbars, search engines and internet home pages that you don’t remember installing.
  • Batteries becoming depleted more quickly than usual.
  • Difficulty logging into secure sites. (If your first login attempt fails and your second succeeds, that may mean the first attempt was on a spoofed browser and the password was communicated to a third party, not to your bank.)
  • Inexplicable increases in your data usage or bandwidth use. These can be a sign that the spyware is searching your information and uploading data to a third party.
  • Anti-virus and other safety software not working.
  • How can you detect spyware on an Android phone? If you look in Settings, you’ll see a setting which allows apps to be downloaded and installed that aren’t in the Google Play Store. If this has been enabled, it’s a sign that potential spyware may have been installed by accident.
  • How can you detect spyware on an iPhone? Look for an app called Cydia, which enables users to install software on a jailbroken phone. If it’s there and you didn’t install it, remove it immediately.

Spyware Protection

If any of these telltale signs occur, you should use a spyware detection and removal program to scan for spyware (some anti-virus software also has a malware detection capability). You’ll then want to remove it.

On Windows computers, looking at Task Manager will sometimes enable you to identify malicious programs. But sometimes, they’re disguised as windows system files. On Apple systems, the Activity Monitor lets you check the status of programs that are running. Some remnants of the spyware might survive when you reinstall your personal data, so it’s best to perform a second scan to ensure the device is completely clean.

Tips to Prevent Spyware

  • Adjust browser security settings. Most browsers allow you to adjust their security levels along a scale from “high” to “low.” Get to know these options, as some browsers can function like a firewall against unwanted operations, even cookie installation if so desired.
  • Keep your operating system and software updated. Regular security patches help fix those weak points that hackers can use to get in.
  • Understand that “free” is never “free.” In most cases with free apps, you implicitly agree to trade tracking for services. You “pay” for the app by agreeing to receive targeted ads. You can decide that this is a fair trade off, but most companies need to track your online activities to determine which ads to show you.
  • Put a screen lock on your smartphone and use strong passwords on your computers to stop unauthorized access.
  • Restrict administrator privileges on your computer or phone. If you run your PC as an administrator or with root access, you’re making the job of installing spyware much easier.
  • Rooting an Android phone or jailbreaking an iPhone opens you up to spyware. Unless you really need the functionality, don’t do it.
  • Don’t use unsecured Wi-Fi, or if you do, use a VPN to protect yourself.
  • Look carefully at the permissions you grant apps when you install them, particularly if they ask for permission to access the microphone, camera, phone, or personal data. If the app wants more information than seems reasonable – for instance, a Sudoku game wanting access to your camera – that may be a sign of a spyware payload.
  • Don’t click on links in emails unless you’re sure you know where they go. Don’t download files from suspicious file sharing networks – they’re likely to be compromised.
  • Always read terms & conditions. Legitimate software vendors will disclose information about how they collect and employ user information in their terms and conditions. Most users don’t even bother to read them. If you are particularly adamant about protecting your online privacy, it’s best to know exactly what you are signing up for. If privacy policies are abused or changed without user knowledge, a software vendor can seriously violate user trust no matter its original intent.
  • Maintain adequate anti-virus and anti-malware protection on your devices.

Types of Spyware

Let’s look at the main groups of spyware to see what they do and how they do it:

  • Keyloggers attempt to capture computer activity by reporting keyboard inputs. The information stolen can include websites you visited, system credentials and passwords, your internet search history, and passwords.
  • Password stealers are designed to harvest passwords from any infected device or computer. Those passwords can include stored web passwords, system logins, or network credentials. Password stealers can also steal cookies to enable them to use websites with your ID.
  • Banking trojans modify web pages to take advantage of browser security lapses. They may spoof bank websites so that users attempt to carry out transactions on a fake site, as well as logging keystrokes and stealing credentials. They can modify transactions (for instance sending money to the cybercriminal’s account instead of the intended account) or transmit collected information to another server.
  • Info stealers scan PCs for information such as usernames and passwords, credit card numbers, and email addresses. It also might take all your email contacts so it can spam them with phishing emails.
  • Mobile spyware can track your geographical location, your call logs, contact lists and even photos taken on your camera phone.
  • Sound recording and video spyware can use your device to record your conversations and send the information to a third party. Some smartphone apps require access to laptop or smartphone cameras and microphones; this permission could be used to record you at any time, upload photos and sound without telling you, livestream your camera on to the internet, and run facial recognition software on your face.
  • Cookie trackers can report your data to advertisers. You might not mind – but how can you be sure exactly what the software is reporting?

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Credits: Veracode & Kaspersky & Google Images

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