spyware is used by everyone from nation states to jealous spouses to surreptitiously collect information and monitor the activity of people without their knowledge. Here’s what you need know about this pervasive and creepy form of malware.
Spyware is a type of malicious software or malware that is installed on a computing device without the end user’s knowledge. It invades the device, steals sensitive information and internet usage data, and relays it to advertisers, data firms, or external users. Any software can be classified as spyware if it is downloaded without the user’s authorization. Spyware is controversial because, even when it is installed for relatively innocuous reasons, it can violate the end user’s privacy and has the potential to be abused.
Spyware can be difficult to detect; often, the first indication a user has that a computing device has been infected with spyware is a noticeable reduction in the processor or network connection speeds and — in the case of mobile devices — data usage and battery life. Antispyware tools can be used to prevent or remove spyware. Antispyware tools can either provide real-time protection by scanning network data and blocking malicious data, or they can detect and remove spyware already on a system by executing scans.
What is the function of spyware?
Before you go deeper you should know what spyware does.
All spyware peeks into your data and all your computer activity whether authorized or not. However, many trusted computer services and applications use “spyware-like” tracking tools. As such, the spyware definition is reserved mostly for malicious applications nowadays.
Malicious spyware is a type of malware specifically installed without your informed consent. Step-by-step, spyware will take the following actions on your computer or mobile device:
- Monitor and capture data— via keystrokes, screen captures, and other tracking codes.
- Send stolen data— to the spyware author, to be used directly or sold to other parties.
- Infiltrate— via an app install package, malicious website, or file attachment.
In short, spyware communicates personal, confidential information about you to an attacker.
The information gathered might be reported about your online browsing habits or purchases, but spyware code can also be modified to record more specific activities.
Data compromised by spyware often includes collecting confidential info such as:
- Account PINs
- Credit card numbers
- Login credentials— passwords and usernames
- Monitored keyboard strokes
- Harvested email addresses
- Tracked browsing habits
How Many Types of Spyware?
There are many types of spyware. Here are some of them.
- Adware: It eyes your online activity and displays ads it thinks you’ll be interested in based on that information. Although benign compared to some other forms of spyware, the adware can have an impact on the performance of a device, as well as just being annoying.
- Keyloggers: They allow a miscreant to capture every keystroke from your keyboard, including the keystrokes you use when you log into your online accounts.
- Stealware: It’s crafted to take advantage of online shopping sites awarding credits to websites that send traffic to their product pages. When a user goes to one of those sites, stealware intercepts the request and takes credit for sending the user there.
- Trojans: After landing on a device, they look for sensitive information, such as bank account information, and send it to a seedy third-party who will use it to steal money, compromise accounts or make fraudulent purchases. They can also be used to gain control of a computer through the installation of a backdoor or a remote access Trojan (RAT).
- Mobile spyware: Mobile spyware is dangerous because it can be transferred through Short Message Service (SMS) or Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) text messages and typically does not require user interaction to execute commands. When a smartphone or tablet gets infected with mobile spyware that is sideloaded with a third-party app, the phone’s camera and microphone can be used to spy on nearby activity, record phone calls, and log browsing activity and keystrokes. The device owner’s location can also be monitored through the Global Positioning System (GPS) or the mobile computing device’s accelerometer.
How to prevent spyware?
Many spyware infections can be averted by users, maintains Tanner Johnson, a senior analyst with IHS Markit, London-based research, analysis, and advisory firm. “Spyware infections take place because individuals go to nefarious websites without knowledge,” he says. “They click a random link. They open an attachment they shouldn’t. They engage in poor cybersecurity practices.”
Care should also be taken when downloading files. Files should only be downloaded from trusted sites. If you have a good antivirus or antimalware program, it will, in many cases, flag downloads that are infected. Make sure your security software comes from a reputable vendor. Malware authors have been known to bury their wares in bogus antivirus apps.
iPhone users can activate 2FA at no additional cost, enabling them to protect all the data on their smartphones and prevent mobile spyware attacks. Two-factor authentication can also be used in a variety of other common services, including PayPal, Google, Dropbox, and Microsoft Office 365, as well as in social networking sites, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter. Most major banks have also started implementing 2FA in their websites and mobile apps. Some services have even increased their authentication process to three- and four-factor authentication — 3FA and 4FA, respectively.
To further reduce the probability of infection, network administrators should practice the principle of least privilege (POLP) and require remote workers to access network resources over a virtual private network (VPN) that runs a security scan before granting access privileges.
How to protect yourself from spyware.
There are several ways that you can protect yourself from spyware. Firstly, don’t unwittingly install it. Many shareware download sites now test programs submitted to them and offer guarantees that their archives are free of spyware.
You have to take this on trust, but the more established sites have their reputation to maintain, so their guarantees can usually be relied upon. So it’s a good idea to download only from reputable software sites, however tempting the offers may be from less well-known ones. Reviews of download sites can help you decide which are the safest.
Secondly, you can install an anti-spyware tool. Many of these are of high quality, and some are freeware themselves. These tools regularly download updates to stay abreast of newly- emerging spyware. Some of them can run in the background all the time, without really slowing down your computer, and they generally do a very good job.