Spyware is a broad category of malware that is used for the purpose of secretly gathering data on an unsuspecting user. Spyware can target your browsing data, login credentials, or other personal information. Some Spyware will forward your information to a third party to be used or sold. Spyware is most often installed via phishing emails, and/or a trojan virus. Unlike most viruses which start replicating to spread through the entire networks after gaining entry to the host, spyware sits undetected on devices they infect to monitor all information and communication quietly. A June 2020 report by Atlas VPN found that 46% of C-level executives were targeted by spyware just before the pandemic started. With the normalization of remote work, this number is bound to skyrocket.
Types of Spyware
There are multiple types of spyware that are designed to gather specific information. The most common types of spyware are:
Adware: Adware secretly installs itself on a device and spies on a user's browsing history to show targeted ads. Not necessarily malicious, adware becomes so when it gathers data about users without their consent.
Keylogger: This spyware is designed to record all the keyboard input by users on their devices. The input is then saved in an encrypted log file. The stolen credentials or payment information is then used or sold.
Rootkits: Part of the more menacing category of spyware, Rootkits exploit security vulnerabilities or use a Trojan horse to infiltrate a device and gain remote admin rights.
Tracking Cookies: These cookies are regarded by many cybersecurity experts as spyware as they monitor all online browsing activities, compile browsing history and record login attempts. Tracking spyware blurs the line between legitimate ad data collection and violating personal privacy. It’s often "agreed to" through terms and conditions.
Spyware truly crosses the line to becoming malware when a user's activity is tracked without his or her permission. Malicious spyware has the potential to slow your computer, generate unwanted and even explicit pop-ups, or pass data on your browsing habits to a third party.
How to Protect your Devices
The best way to control spyware is by preventing it from getting on your computer in the first place. However, avoiding program downloads and email attachments isn't always an option. Sometimes, even a trusted website can become compromised and infect your computer. As a first line of defense, a reliable antivirus and malware detection should be used. If one of your devices is already infected, many security providers offer spyware removal utilities to assist in identifying and removing spyware. Be careful and make sure to use a reliable internet security provider when choosing a Spyware removal tool, as certain utilities can be fraudulent and be spyware themselves. Beyond the standard antivirus and being aware of phishing/social engineering, there are a few other general tips that can be used across devices.
- Install an anti-tracking browser extension. Tools now exist that disconnect you from the constant online tracking that occurs nowadays. Even reputable tracking may be unwanted, so these tools help you and your data remain private across the web.
- Be cautious when consenting to cookies. Only accept cookies from trusted sites.
- Keep software up to date with the latest security updates
- Stay away from unofficial app stores. Always read the publisher's name and verify that it is official and not a third party.
- Enable or download a pop-up blocker. Most browsers offer built-in pop-up blockers now, although you may want to set the blocker to a higher setting to prevent anything slipping through.
- Avoid email links and attachments from unknown sources. One of the most popular ways to distribute malware is through email attachments. Be wary when c licking links or opening attachments.
- Do not follow unknown links in text messages. A popular method for mobile attackers is to include malicious links to their targets to gather information or gain access to the device.
- Be cautious when giving apps permissions. Some apps have no need to access your camera, microphone, or location.
The Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT) helps keep Windows computers free from prevalent malware. MSRT finds and removes threats and reverses the changes made by these threats. MSRT is generally released monthly as part of Windows Update or as a standalone tool available here for download.
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