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What is spyware? As the name suggests, spyware is a form of malware that is used by its author (cybercriminal) to spy on personal activities and data of the affected individual (victim), usually without any permission or knowledge of the victim. It can collect the personal information of the victim, including passwords, credit card numbers, geolocation, browsing history, and even the words typed in a keyboard, whether they are passwords or not. The cybercriminal can use the collected data to steal from the victim’s bank account, to sell the victim’s internet usage data to ad companies or other malicious entities, infect the victim’s device with other malicious software (malware), and a lot more. Spyware can infect all operating systems (e.g., Windows, Android, Mac, iOS), so everyone should be aware of its nature and activities. In this article, we are going to provide a clear and informative look about spyware.
Brief History: Where Did Spyware Come From?
The first recorded public use of the term spyware was way back in 1995 in an old “online forum” website called Usenet, and it was only meant as espionage. But in 2000, the term was again used by Gregor Freund, founder of Zone Labs, in a press release for the very first personal firewall, ZoneAlarm. He used the word to define a malicious software that sends the information collected from the victim’s computer to another computer or a third-party server, without any consent. In the same year, a parent who was using ZoneAlarm reported that the educational software for children, Red Rabbit, was secretively sending information back to the company. In defense, Mattel, the toy company that distributes Red Rabbit, said that the software was only meant for advertisement purposes.
Though the exact time spyware began is unclear, we can still rightly conclude that it sprung from the idea of advertising companies who want to provide ads specifically to the people who will most likely be interested in clicking the ads. And to determine these specific people for specific ads, they need to collect personal information and internet activities. Since people do not want to share their personal data, these companies need an undetected software. In short, spyware came from an advertising strategy.
The Nature of Spyware
Spywares are one of the most tricky malware. It runs on the background silently, doing its evil acts of unsolicited data collection and distribution. Nevertheless, it can still be detected and removed. But first, let us look at the nature of spyware.
Spyware is a Type of Malware
Malware is any software that is malicious or nefarious in nature. For example, the things we call “virus,” “worms,” and “trojan” are malware. They are computer programs that are meant to harm and exploit. Spyware is a type of malware that secretly runs on the background and gathers information in various ways.
Spyware is Different from Virus, Worms, Trojan Horse
It is a common mistake to label everything malicious in a computer as “virus,” or to use it interchangeably with malware. But a virus is only a type of malware that replicates itself after being executed, infects other files, and spreads through downloading wireless file-sharing, or physical drives such as flash drives and hard disk. In contrast, worms are a type of malware that self-replicates but spreads across the computer network or through the internet without any human activation, unlike a virus that needs to be activated.
Spyware only affects a device once you unknowingly downloaded it and installs it without your permission. It pretends to be a valid program but does not replicate itself to affect other files or devices. A trojan horse, on the other hand, is very similar to spyware as it pretends to be legitimate software, does not replicate itself, but attacks your device in a specific manner (depending on how the author of the trojan programmed it to act).
You can listen to this Youtube video by ThioJoe for a quick overview of the types of malwares:
Spyware is a Damaging Threat
To be infected with spyware is a serious threat and should not be taken lightly. It can be used by cybercriminals to drain your bank account. They can sell your private information to real-world criminals or expose sensitive information to damage your reputation. Of course, with proper action, spyware can be removed from any device with ease, but it should not be taken lightly. After all, no safety program can undo any malicious act a cybercriminal already performed. But you don’t have to panic because we will show the steps to protect yourself and how you can remove this threat.
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The Activities of a Spyware
To identify the activities of spyware, you need to know its different types. This list includes some of the most common forms of spyware, and we are going to take a quick look at their functions. There’s also one that is actually legitimate. Yes, there is legitimate spyware. In summary, here’s the list of what they can do:
- Record browsing history or internet activities
- Log keyboard strokes
- Slow down your device
- Collect sensitive, financial, personal information
Keyboard loggers or keyloggers are programs designed to log all your keystrokes. This means that usernames, passwords, email addresses, email contents, documents, credit card numbers, and other sensitive data will be recorded. More sophisticated keyloggers can also gather documents by going through printers.
This spyware collects your data and sends them to third-party entities. According to Kaspersky.com, adware is programmed to display ads on your screen, redirect your web searches to advertising companies, and collect data about you that will be used as marketing data.
Browser hijacker affects your internet browser by resetting your default homepage and saved bookmarks. The goal of this malware is to direct you to unwanted websites with spam ads. Also, this spyware mines your browsing history and sells them to advertising companies.
Modem hijackers infiltrate telephone lines or mobile phone connections to make unauthorized calls and access to subscription-based websites through your internet connection. They are typically used to access adult websites such as porn sites and to exploit premium telephone numbers. Usually, the victim would only become aware of the infiltration when he saw his thousand dollars or more telephone bill next month.
Infostealers are programs capable of scanning computers and stealing user’s personal data. That data includes internet usage, email addresses, usernames, passwords, sensitive records, and media files. Depending on the design of this spyware, infostealers send the collected data on a remote server, or sometimes to be retrieved on the victim’s local server.
Lastly, there is a commercial spyware. Though not necessarily malicious, commercial spyware has a great potential of being abused by its author. That might be confusing since Spywares are malwares, and malwares are malicious software. Well, some people also use the term “spyware” for legitimate programs that are designed to collect user data for valid purposes, such as monitoring and regulating children’s internet usage. But there are spyware apps that are commercially sold, usually through a daily or monthly subscription, to users who want to spy on other people, such as a spouse, person being stalked, or anyone under abuse. Commercial spyware can track geolocation, collect text messages and emails, record browsing history, and others.
How to Protect Myself from Spywares?
To protect yourself from this spyware, you both need to take action and not to take action.
Things to Do:
- Install a legitimate, trustworthy anti-spyware software. Your anti-spyware programs should have real-time protection. This feature constantly scans the programs and files that run on your device and your internet activities, such as email attachments, malicious websites, and phishing websites.
NOTE: Remember, there is rogue security software that poses as a legitimate antivirus or antimalware program, but they are malwares themselves. So when you install anti-spyware, it should come from a known security software provider. Also, always avoid downloading from third-party websites but download from the official website itself.
- Install adblockers. Malvertising, or malicious advertising, is when cybercriminals infect a legitimate banner ad, which then sends or transmits malware onto your device even if you don’t click the ad. They can also infect trustworthy websites, so your best action is to block all the ads.
- Only give remote and physical access to a few people you trust the most. Cybercriminals sometimes perform their infiltration because you let them so. Be very mindful of protecting your device.
Things Not to Do:
- Do not miss your computer or device updates. This is a common mistake for many people. They think that regular updates are just a waste of time and internet data, but operating systems need to update regularly to protect itself from new forms of cyberattacks. Skipping your updates puts your device to vulnerabilities.
- Do not click links and file attachments from suspicious or unrecognized emails. According to Verizon’s 2019 Data Breach Investigations Report, 94% of malware distribution is through emails.
- Do not go to malicious websites. These are usually adult sites and illegal file-sharing sites. Also, as much as possible, avoid going to http::// websites. They are not secured, and the data they are sending is not encrypted, unlike https::// websites.
Spywares are scary. They can steal money, destroys lives, and shutdown companies. But you can protect yourself and others from it if you have a safe and healthy browsing habit. Much of what cybercriminals do is to find the weak vulnerabilities of the victims. Spyware fools people and computers by pretending to be legitimate software. But if you will be vigilant in all of your internet activities, and even offline file transfers, you can protect yourself from these attacks.