Spyware is malware that “spies” your computer. In other words, spyware is a software program that invades your computer and secretly monitors all your activities. It is one of the ubiquitous threats on the Internet. It easily infects a device and is difficult for people to detect it. Spyware, also called ‘snoopware,’ is capable of violating a user’s privacy rights.
Using this, the cybercriminals can track the user’s information like internet surfing, bank account details, login credentials, etc and pass it to a remote server for retrieving later or share with third-parties for fraudulent or extortion purposes.
Thus, it is a massive threat to the security of individuals as well as different organizations. A survey states that almost 80% of internet users are spyware-affected. 89% of the victims are unaware of spyware-existence on their systems, and most of them don’t recall how and when they granted permission for its installation.
No great astonishment. Spyware attacks a system covertly, without your knowledge or permission. It is easy to get victimized by spyware and hard to get rid of it, mainly because you are unaware of its presence.
But don’t worry.
We are here with information to alert you and enrich your knowledge about it. We are going to discuss “How does spyware gets installed?” its various types and how we can fight them?
Let’s proceed to find it out.
How does spyware infects a device?
Most of the spyware gets installed in a user’s system unknowingly due to his activities. There are multiple ways in which a computer gets affected by spyware.
Accepting without reading
Most of the time the user accepts whatever appears on the screen without reading the prompt. For example, during internet browsing, a pop up tells you a particular plug-in is needed because your device is infected.
Without fully understanding or reading it, you often click ‘OK’ to such pop-ups.
Another example is when checkboxes are already marked during any software installation. During the process, it prompts the user for installing or updating some additional programs. Without knowing what they are, or simply, even if that is not needed, the user accepts it.
Emails and links
Email is a prevalent method for spreading spyware. Attackers send infected email attachments, which when clicked by users, invade their systems and obtain their sensitive information.
The cybercrooks also adopt phishing where they design a link resembling a legitimate one and send it to the target victims.
When clicked, such a link can redirect the user to a malicious website and aid the attacker in stealing confidential data from the system or infect the system with malware.
Outdated software and operating systems
Make sure the operating system and other programs of your computer are updated. For instance, the updates of Microsoft Windows are mostly security oriented. Check the installed plug-ins and their versions.
Using pirated software
If you are involved in downloading and exchanging copyrighted files (music, games, films) in BitTorrent or other services, you might be at risk.
There are chances of these files containing spyware, trojans, etc along with what you have downloaded.
Downloads from an unreliable source
Downloading files from unreliable untrusted or malicious websites can harm the systems with spyware and viruses. On installing any update, the program prompts with many options.
Be sure to read them before accepting.
No antivirus/antispyware scanner
Downloaded files should be scanned through antivirus and antispyware scanners. If there is no such software, then you are at risk of being attacked.
Such softwares can detect and remove any existing infection as well as provide prevention for future attacks.
Sometimes, spyware is installed for innocuous reasons, and in such cases it is called “tracking software”. Such tracking software helps in monitoring the user activity at a workplace or home.
For example, a company may use such software on the corporate computers and laptops to track the employee’s activities.
Again, at home, parents may use it to monitor their child’s actions.
When the end user is informed about the data collection and how it is being shared, such programs are not considered as spyware.
What are the different types of spyware?
Spyware often installs on the system, bundled with another software, without the user’s knowledge.
It is capable of tracking a user’s behavior and stealing and misusing user data. Spyware is one of the major reason behind cybercrime and is of the following types.
Advertising-supported software or adware is a type of spyware that monitors your downloads and browsing history. It tracks the services you are interested in and accordingly displays advertisements related to them.
It mostly comes in the form of pop-ups or unclosable windows.
Adware will lure you to clicking those ads or purchasing a service. It is generally used for marketing reasons and can decrease the speed of your computer.
Trojan viruses are malware disguised as legitimate software. The cybercriminals club it with social engineering techniques to illegally gain access over others’ systems and obtain sensitive information.
A special kind of trojan called ‘banking trojan’ targets various financial institutions like banks, online payment portals, digital wallets, etc.
It stashes away pieces of information related to these financial institutions by exploiting the existing weaknesses in their security system.
Banking trojans may modify a web page, tamper with transaction processes and transmit sensitive data to remote servers for retrieving later.
All these are done clandestinely, bypassing both the user as well as host web application.
Tracking cookies are a special type of cookie which is used for advertising purposes, particularly for ‘retargeting.’
When the tracking cookies display ads or services similar to the ones you have visited or shown interest before, it is called retargeting.
Tracking cookies are also called ‘third-party persistent cookies.’ They are stored in the device memory and possess an expiry date.
Notable resources are social media widgets (like, share etc), advertisements and web analytics.
They are considered invasive and categorized as spyware because they keep track of a user’s browsing history, searches, etc and can be a concern for user’s privacy violation.
System monitors are also known as keyloggers. They observe and record all the activities you do on your system. They are capable of tracking keystrokes, emails, websites visited and programs running.
Keyloggers are capable of capturing system credentials, collecting periodic screenshots of the window currently opened, gathering information from audio/video transmissions, etc.
System monitors often appear as freeware.
Password stealers and Infostealers
Password stealers are a type of spyware which can run silently in the background of your device and is engaged in collecting information about the device, its users and network activities surreptitiously.
They are designed to steal stored credentials, usernames, passwords, and other personal sensitive data.
The collected information may be transmitted to a remote destination for the attacker to retrieve it later.
Password stealers help the attacker in installing extra software on the infected device and allow them to use it for different malicious purposes.
Infostealers are applications that can secretly track user behavior as well as can collect and store confidential information about the system and its users.
It furtively gathers data like usernames and passwords, keystrokes from emails, screenshots, chat programs, websites visited and financial activities.
It may intrude the system either by bundled with any software which you downloaded or just as a simple program through emails.
Collected information is either stored locally and accessed later or sent to some other online location.
Presence of spyware in the system tracks user’s activities and can modify user’s preferences, permissions or administrative rights without the user’s consent.
How will you know if your system is affected with spyware?
Recognizing spyware on your system
Identifying spyware on any system is difficult. Spyware is deceptive by nature and cannot be recognized easily. However, several symptoms are there which can indicate the presence of spyware in your system.
Some of them are:
- Your device is unexpectedly slow. For a computer, the processor and network connection speeds are noticeably reduced. For a mobile, the data usage is affected, and battery life degrades.
- You get endless pop-up windows when you are online or offline.
- You find yourself redirected to websites other than the one you had entered.
- You may find that some keys are not functioning in the browser. (E.g., the tab key fails when moving between fields in a form)
- Your device may face a shortage of hard drive space.
- Random Windows error messages start appearing.
”how can I prevent spyware from installing on my computer?” – Is that the question in your mind? I am not a mind reader but can sense this is an obvious question.
Let’s discuss it.
Preventing devices from spyware infection
Considering the gravity of the spyware problem and realizing the potential of the damage it can inflict on the user’s system and user data, it is highly recommended to undertake countermeasures to avert one’s system from being spyware-infected.
Mostly, you have an antivirus application instead of an anti-spyware software installed.
Antivirus applications can effectively figure out malware threats including spyware but may not be able to detect all kinds of spyware variants.
That’s why installing a trusted anti-spyware software is highly recommended. You must keep the software updated to deal with the latest forms of spyware threats efficiently.
Careful web surfing
Malware often gets installed when you visit a malicious website. Avoid clicking links leading to such sites. Do not download files from an untrusted website.
If you are unsure about any product, conduct research by going through the reviews of the particular product.
Make sure that the file being downloaded is not pirated, otherwise there remains a high chance of spyware intruding your system and violating your privacy.
Beware of pop-ups
Several pop-up notifications may appear on your screen. Do not straightaway click ‘OK’ or ‘I agree’ to close them. Spywares can get installed when you accept these pop-ups.
Use Alt+F4 or click on the red colored ‘X’ button on the corner of the window to close it.
Attractive advertisements are also displayed to the users by the cyber crooks, tempting them to click the ads and make way for malware intrusion. Do not open any such ads.
Updates and patches
Keep your system updated. Improved features are available when the system is updated. For any antivirus or antispyware software, a non-updated OS can make your device prone to malware threats.
Use the ‘Automatic Updates’ feature in the Windows computer to install latest updates automatically and avert spyware attacks.
You must have the latest patches installed on your software applications like Java, Adobe products, Microsoft Office software, etc.
Frequently, software patches are introduced for these products to fix any existing vulnerabilities which can be used by the attackers to deploy malware like spyware.
Browser settings and firewalls
Having updated web browsers can help in preventing malware attacks by warning the users about malicious websites and suggesting a safer action. The browser must be configured appropriately.
Firewalls help in monitoring and controlling the network traffic. They are capable of blocking any suspicious traffic which protects your system from spyware infection.
Microsoft Windows Internet Connection Firewall offers this feature.
By undertaking these precautions, you can reduce the risks of being a victim of spyware attacks.
Whom do spyware attackers target?
Spyware authors cast a wide net to victimize as many users as possible. They do not target a particular individual or group. This makes everybody a spyware target.
Attackers indulge themselves in illegal ways of collecting users’ data and often misuse them in extortion and fraudulent activities.
Typically, the Windows operating system, because of its widespread use, is a preferred target for the cybercriminals.
Recently, they have also focused on attacking Android and Apple platforms and mobiles.
Though most spyware attacks are on Windows systems, there has been an enormous leap in the industry, concerning Mac malware, in 2017.
Most of the malware affecting Mac OS was spyware (mainly password stealers and general purpose backdoors).
In Mac spyware, the intents of the attackers are keylogging, password phishing, remote code execution, screen captures, etc.
Along with Mac Spyware, another spyware available for Mac is ‘legitimate spyware.’ It is sold by an authorized company with the motive of monitoring children’s and employees’ activities.
However, it can also be misused for illegally spying a user’s system.
Mobile spyware lies undetected in the background of mobile phones and tracks all sorts of user information like incoming/outgoing calls, messages, emails, browser history, contacts, and photos.
It can log your keystrokes, record anything within the distance range of the mobile’s microphone, track your location through GPS or quietly take pictures in the background.
If your device is engaged for corporate use and is affected with spyware, then attackers can exploit it against that specific organization.
The collected data, whether it is of ordinary consumers or corporate workers, is stashed away by them in remote locations for accessing later.
Mobile spyware can invade the device through unsecured free wi-fi hotspots, OS vulnerabilities, and malicious apps. Unsecured free wifi is found in public places like cafes, airports, railway stations, etc.
It is a potential threat to the users as the cybercriminals can monitor all your activities easily when connected to such vulnerable networks.
Mobile manufacturers periodically release updates of the device’s OS to bolster the security features. Using backdated features offer the cyber crooks a golden opportunity to attack and infect the system.
Also, downloading malicious apps which seek permission to access personal information like email id, pictures, phonebook, etc pave the way for spyware installation.
Spyware is evil in disguise. It is capable of tracking and monitoring a user’s system as well as the user’s activities surreptitiously. Spyware can stash away your confidential details, sensitive credentials to a remote location without your knowledge.
It is a dangerous threat as it is a silent attacker and it’s tough to detect it. With the advancement of technology, the cybercriminals are also devising more sophisticated and smarter attacking techniques. Therefore, you must incorporate reputable cybersecurity programs to counter spyware.
Implement cybersecurity measures providing real-time protection which automatically block spyware and other threats. Install trusted antivirus and anti-spyware software and keep them updated.
Develop good online habits while web surfing. Do not get lured by attractive ads or pop-ups. Do not download anything from an unknown or untrusted source, avoid clicking links in emails from unknown senders, etc.
Dangers and threats are bound to be existing in the digital world. You can protect yourself by combining the cybersecurity suite with personal awareness and a disciplined and well informed online habit.