Malware, Spyware, and viruses. These are terms that computer users have been fearful of since the early 90s. While spyware was never the threat that terrified users the most, it has recently surfaced as a genuine security concern for anyone who has an internet connection. Spyware can record your data, your keystrokes, log your credentials, spy on all of your activity, and share all of the information it records with third parties. Sometimes, the third parties don’t genuinely have malicious intent (like advertisers) but that doesn’t mean that attackers don’t use spyware to get access to your bank account or your online profiles. Here’s all you need to know about spyware and how to stay protected from it.
Spyware is a generic term used to define software that infects your system (mobile or computer) and gathers sensitive information about you. This type of malware is one of the oldest threats found on the internet. Usually, spyware installs on your system without your knowledge and runs quietly in the background collecting all sorts of information. Spyware can collect anything from your distinct keystrokes, authentications, personal emails, web form data, internet usage, credit card information and even screenshots of your activities. As you can see, this is a serious problem that you don’t want to have.
Is All Spyware Illegal?
That being said, not all spyware is malicious or illegal. Parental control programs are a type of spyware that is legally used all over the world to protect underaged people from accessing adult-centric websites or content. Businesses all over the world sometimes use spyware to monitor the usage of their computers. This is used to track the work of the employees, which isn’t a problem as long as the employees are informed of the spyware.
Other times, advertising campaigns might involve using spyware to gather information on their target audience’s online activities. In these cases, the user usually consents to have the spyware installed on their system when they consent to the Terms of Services of a particular software (usually free). This isn’t exactly illegal, as the user is “technically” consenting to the spyware. However, there is a lot of debate on the legality of such consent since most users don’t read the fine print of any ToS or End-User agreement.
How Legal is “Legal”?
The fact that most software uses a one-click option for consent (where you either consent to the whole agreement or you don’t get to use the product at all) has put the validity of such spyware installations under scrutiny by legal courts everywhere. So far, the law against spyware is very iffy. Since, legally, there’s no proper definition of what constitutes acceptable spyware and malicious spyware, many spyware companies take advantage of the lax legal space and trick users into installing their software by attaching it to legitimate programs and apps.
Types of Spyware
In general, spyware falls into one of 4 distinct types:
As the name suggests, adware is a form of spyware that is closely related to ads and ad campaigns. Most adware is harmless, showing up as pop-ups in your browsers or “watch this ad” options in online games. Some adware, however, is maliciously installed into your system to track your web usage, your keystrokes, and the information you have on your hard drive.
You’ve probably heard of Trojans being defined as viruses you can get on your system, but that is a misnomer. Trojans are types of malware that get installed on your system through means that may seem legitimate (an email attachment, an app, or even using an infected USB). There are different types of Trojans out there, but the ones related to this article are called Infostealer Trojans. These types of Trojans work directly in ways that steal all of your data. Trojans can be used to ransom users to undo the damage done to a system, gain full control of your system, and even steal your login credentials for banks, social media accounts, and emails.
Tracking cookies are the least harmful forms of spyware and they install on your system when you browse the web. They track where you go while online and are meant to report back to third-parties (usually advertising agencies). With tracking cookies, advertisers can monitor your interests and customize what data you end up seeing online. While these are not exactly malicious forms of spyware, they are a privacy threat.
System monitors are spyware that keeps track of everything you do on your system. These types of spyware work in varying degrees but can track your keystrokes, your programs, your communications, your email, your internet traffic, and anything you do on your computer. System monitors weren’t a type of spyware that internet users were deathly afraid of, as they used to require administrative permission to run on your computer. In recent years, however, unknowing internet users are installing the system monitors themselves by downloading free software. Same as with all other spyware, be sure to read the ToS, Privacy Statements, and User agreements of any software you want to download before you use it.
How Can I Infect My System with Spyware?
As I said above, your system can be infected with spyware without you even knowing about it. This makes finding spyware and dealing with the problem increasingly difficult. That being said, here is a list of the most common ways a system gets infected with spyware:
Clicking on or accepting a prompt from a pop-up, especially if you don’t read it first.
Downloading software from a shady and unreliable source.
Opening spam email attachments, or even attachments from unknown senders.
Torrenting without proper security methods.
Not updating your OS and opening up vulnerabilities in your system.
Downloading free software.
What Do I Do if I have Spyware?
Let me start by saying that only a legitimate anti-malware program can guarantee catching most all of the spyware on your system.. However, if you feel like your system is slow, heating up, or not working as smoothly as it should, you might have spyware slowing it down. If you find out you have spyware, there are several things you can do to remove it from your system.
Use Safe Mode
If you know or suspect that you have spyware on your computer, try rebooting the system in safe mode. Before you do this, disconnect your computer from the internet (to prevent any further reporting). In safe mode, only the essential programs will run on your computer. This way, you can see whether or not spyware was slowing down your system.
Delete Temporary Files
A lot of times, you’ll find the spyware saved under temp files in your system. You’ll also find the stolen data in encrypted files there. By deleting your temporary files, you’ll be able to remove some forms of spyware from your system, or at least remove whatever information they’ve gathered.
Use a Malware Scanner/ Anti-Malware program
In general, there are two types of anti-malware programs you should have on your computer. The first type, known as real-time malware scanners, usually runs in the background and constantly checks for any malware. You should also have one or two on-demand malware scanners that perform a hard scan when you ask them to. Remember, there are millions and millions of malware out there. It’s impossible to find a program that will be able to protect your system from 100% of all threats. However, if you use more than one reputable program, you increase your chances of finding each and every threat on your computer.
How to Protect Myself from Spyware
Despite the frequency of malware infections, there are still precautions you can take to protect your system from spyware.
Stay away from freeware (free software) as they usually make their money selling your data to third parties.
Make sure you have a credible anti-malware program running on your computer.
Have one or two on-demand anti-malware programs ready to perform a hard scan whenever you want it.
Use a VPN to protect your data online and make it impossible for third-parties to monitor/spy on your internet usage. We suggest using ExpressVPN.
All in all, it seems like spyware has become a consistent threat on today’s internet. However, you can still have the protection you need while online. The days of carefree internet browsing are over so it’s always better to be an informed user. Make sure you take the necessary precautions to keep your information and your system as safe as possible.
A reader, writer, and avid internet user. Hiba has spent the better part of her adult life looking for ways to have a safer and more user-friendly online experience, all while praising the uses of VPN connections to anyone who would listen.