What is Spyware and How to Protect Against it?

Did you know every 39 seconds, at least one system gets compromised worldwide? It could be via virus malware, phishing, social engineering, fileless malware, etc. So, we’re here to talk about one such common tactic: Spyware.

What is spyware and how does it work? You’ll find the answers below as well as the various types, and ways to detect, remove, and prevent spyware.. 

But before jumping in: What is malware? Well, it’s malicious software or a corrupted program used to enter a system, steal and intercept sensitive data, and commit other cybercrimes. Generally, the aim is to make money or ruin an organization’s image.

 

What is Spyware?

Let’s start with the spyware definition. Spyware is a type of malware installed on your device without your knowledge and consent. It secretly collects, monitors, exports, and sometimes modifies crucial information. 

Affected data includes anything from browser history and bank login details to emails, messages, credit card info, and other account credentials. Some spyware can even access and record data from your webcam, microphone, keyboard, etc. What’s more, hackers use spyware for all types of targets – unsuspecting individuals, small businesses with outdated digital infrastructure, or modern companies that use HPC solutions to solve all kinds of problems.

Often, professional spyware attackers sell data like financial details, login info, and source coding to third parties. 

While spyware typically describes unlawful malicious software, certain types of legal “spyware-like” programs also exist, such as:

  • Tracking cookies for user-consented targeted advertising
  • Parental control software
  • Website cookies to personalize your experience
  • Corporate monitoring tools to control data access

Of course, these legal tracking tools are a far cry from malicious software used by cybercriminals to steal and exploit your personal data.

The term spyware was first used in October 1995 in an article aimed at Microsoft’s business model. It was published by Usenet, an online platform with newsgroups meant for internet discussions. 

Then in 1999, Steve Gibson of Gibson Research spotted an adware covertly exporting confidential details from his device. It was after this incident that he programmed the first-ever anti-spyware, OptOut.

 

How Does Spyware Work?

Spyware works by secretly tracking cookies to map your internet activities, including email communications, social media actions, and anything else you do online. It can also capture other actions with system monitoring tools.

Spyware can enter a system through many vectors, but most commonly via suspicious emails with malicious links or attachments. Spyware may also get on your computer through files downloaded from unsafe sources, piggybacking (or hiding) in legitimate-looking programs, drive-by downloads, and unsecured internet connections.

Stages

Once an attacker unleashes spyware, it usually proceeds in the following stages:

 

  • Infiltrates your computer or system after you visit a compromised website, open a spyware-loaded link or attachment, or inadvertently download malicious software.
  • Monitors and captures web and system activity to collect data using keylogging, screen capturing, internet tracking, etc.
  • Transfers stolen information to the hacker for nefarious self-use or to sell it to dangerous third parties.

What Does Spyware Collect?

It usually collects the following data:

  • Browser history
  • Keyboard strokes
  • Email accounts and addresses
  • Passwords and usernames
  • Other sensitive information like banking details, source codes, customer databases, etc.

What Issues Does Spyware Cause?

Spyware can cause a host of very serious problems, including:

  • Identity theft
  • Data breaches
  • Software and system damage
  • Disrupted browsing experience including harmful pop-up ads and changed settings

Example of Spyware

First spotted in December 2020, FluBot is spyware installed through SMS. The message tricked Android users into clicking a fraudulent link to “track a parcel” or “listen to a voicemail message.” In reality, it asked for accessibility permissions that allowed hackers to obtain confidential details, including secure login details and cryptocurrency account information.

FluBot compromised many devices across nations, including major attacks in Spain and Finland. Fortunately, it was taken down in May 2022 with the joint efforts of 11 countries.

 

What are the Types of Spyware?

Spyware can be broken down into various threat factors. Here’s a round-up of four common spyware types

Trojan

A Trojan is a fake program that pretends to be a genuine one. It often gives backdoor access to hackers to secretly collect and exfiltrate sensitive data. It’s named after the Trojan Horse from Greek mythology that was used in the war to enter the city of Troy in disguise.

Adware

Adware monitors your browser history and downloads to predict what products and services entice you. It then displays frustrating pop-up advertisements while you browse the internet. Malicious adware can significantly harm your system and even collect your private data. 

Internet Trackers

Internet trackers are a common way to track your web activities, primarily for sales and marketing purposes. However, at times, bad actors use them to inject spyware.

They may also track using cookies, but not all of them are spiteful. Usually, trustworthy websites use cookies to personalize your browsing experience. But, third-party cookies are mostly a spyware type as they come from an illegitimate source. 

System Monitors

System monitors are software or tools that capture all the activities done on your computer like browsing, entering passwords, maintaining databases, exchanging emails, etc. Keylogging is a common way in which attackers record keystrokes to get passwords and other sensitive information.

 

How to Spot Spyware?

Malicious actors target PCs, Macs, iOS, and Android devices to inject different types of malware, including spyware. Basically, any device with an active internet connection can be compromised. That’s why you must know and educate your employees about the spyware detection signs shared below. 

  • The biggest spyware detection sign is your device running out of hard drive space without an explanation.
  • Sluggishness or frequent system crashes 
  • Frequent error messages.
  • Redirects to fake websites that might resemble genuine ones.
  • Changed browser settings like homepage preferences and preferred search engine.
  • Finding unfamiliar software or files.
  • Missing or altered documents.
  • Your browser has plugins not added by you.

How to Prevent Spyware?

Hackers are becoming more sophisticated and organized in attempting different types of cyberattacks. However, you can prevent malware attacks by arming yourself and your employees with the right knowledge So, go on and check out the six spyware protection techniques below. 

Don’t Install Free and Untrustworthy Software

There are hundreds of free programs and tools that most folks download without checking their authenticity. Many of these have different spyware types embedded in them. Only purchase genuine software from an official platform to stay safe. 

Use Anti-Spyware 

Anti-spyware software helps in spyware detection, prevention, and removal by performing routine checks on your computer. However, be aware of fraudulent anti-spyware programs that might contain computer worms, viruses, hybrid malware, etc. Only use trusted programs.

Adjust Browser Security Settings

Browsers themselves have a range of security settings that offer you moderate spyware protection. You can:

  • Disable suspicious extensions
  • Disable saved passwords
  • Turn off autofill
  • Manage cookies
  • Clear your cache

Browse Smartly

Developing the habit of smart browsing can mitigate spyware, malvertising, password attacks, etc. Don’t click or download suspicious links even if they’re emailed by someone you know. Also, never fall for pop-up ad baits like a sponsored vacation, free and expensive gifts, lotteries, etc.

Use a Firewall

A firewall blocks the entry and exit of unauthorized users, making it difficult for spyware to enter a system. It works by scanning data packets for malicious codes already used for an attack.

Educate your Employees

Creating awareness is a must. So, educate your employees on all the preventive measures above. Most cyberattacks are repercussions from a lack of cyber awareness.

 

How to Remove Spyware?

Spyware is a widespread issue for internet users. Immediately disconnect from the internet to stop further damage if you suspect it. Next, use verified anti-spyware programs to perform a full system scan to quarantine and delete spyware automatically. If you’re aware of the exact location of the spyware, go for a custom scan. 

You can remove it manually after identifying the infected program by uninstalling and deleting it permanently.

Final Thoughts

Hackers use tactics to install spyware on your device without your knowledge and permission. It covertly collects and exports crucial data, including financial details. You should be alarmed if you notice your system performance slowing down, unrecognized files, your browser redirecting you frequently or any changed settings.

Installing anti-spyware software, using a firewall, and adjusting browser settings can help with spyware protection and prevention.

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