All about spyware
When you go online, don’t assume that your privacy is secure. Prying eyes often follow your activity—and your personal information—with a pervasive form of malicious software called spyware. In fact, it’s one of the oldest and most widespread threats on the Internet, secretly infecting your computer in order to initiate a variety of illegal activities, including identity theft or a data breach. It’s easy to fall prey to and can be hard to get rid of, especially since you’re most likely not even aware of it. But relax; we’ve got your back with all you need to know about what spyware is, how you get it, what it tries to do to you, how to deal with it, and what to do to avoid future spyware attacks.
How do I get spyware?
Spyware can infect your system in the same ways as any other form of malware. Here are a few of spyware’s main techniques to infect your PC or mobile device.
- Security vulnerabilities, e.g. backdoors and exploits. An exploit is a security vulnerability in your device’s hardware or software that can be abused or exploited to gain unauthorized access. Software vulnerabilities are also known as “software bugs” or just “bugs” for short. Exploits are an unintentional byproduct of hardware and software manufacturing. Mistakes happen and bugs manage to find their way in to even the most polished consumer technology. Backdoors, on the other hand, are put in place on purpose as a way to quickly gain access to your system after the fact. Sometimes the hardware and software makers themselves put the backdoors in. More often than not, however, cybercriminals will use an exploit to gain initial access to your system then install a permanent backdoor for future access.
- Phishing and spoofing. These two threats are often used in tandem. Phishing happens whenever criminals try to get you to perform some sort of action such as clicking a link to a malware-laden website, opening an infected email attachment (aka malspam), or giving up your login credentials. Spoofing refers to the act of disguising phishing emails and websites so that they appear to be from and by individuals and organizations you trust.
- Misleading marketing. Spyware authors love to present their spyware programs as useful tools to download. It might be an Internet accelerator, new download manager, hard disk drive cleaner, or an alternative web search service. Beware this kind of “bait,” because installing it can result in inadvertent spyware infection. And even if you eventually uninstall the “useful” tool that initially introduced the infection, the spyware remains behind and continues to function.
- Software bundles.Who doesn’t love free software (freeware)? Except when it’s a host program that conceals a malicious add-on, extension, or plugin. Bundleware may look like necessary components, but they are nonetheless spyware, which, again, remains even if you uninstall the host application. Making matters worse, you may find that you actually agreed to install the spyware when you accepted the terms of service for the original application.
- Trojans. Broadly speaking, if malware pretends to be something it’s not—that means it’s a Trojan. That said, most Trojans today are not threats in and of themselves. Rather, cybercriminals use Trojans to deliver other forms of malware, like cryptojackers, ransomware, and viruses.
- Mobile device spyware. Mobile spyware has been around since mobile devices became mainstream. Mobile spyware is especially devious since mobile devices are small and users generally can’t see what programs are running in the background as easily as they might on their laptop or desktop. Both Mac and Android devices are vulnerable to spyware. These apps include legitimate apps recompiled with harmful code, straight up malicious apps posing as legitimate ones (often with names resembling popular apps), and apps with fake download links.
How do I protect myself from spyware?
The best defense against spyware, as with most malware, starts with your behavior. Follow these basics of good cyber self-defense.
- Don’t open emails from unknown senders.
- Don’t download files unless they come from a trusted source.
- Mouse-over links before clicking on them and make sure you’re being sent to the right webpage.
- Use a reputable cybersecurity program to counter advanced spyware. In particular, look for cybersecurity that includes real-time protection.
A quick note about real-time protection. Real-time protection automatically blocks spyware and other threats before they can activate on your computer. Some traditional cybersecurity or antivirus products rely heavily on signature-based technology—these products can be easily circumvented by today’s modern threats.
You should also look out for features that block the delivery of spyware itself on your machine, such as anti-exploit technology and malicious website protection, which blocks websites that host spyware. The premium version of Malwarebytes has a solid reputation for spyware protection.
Digital life comes with ubiquitous dangers in the daily online landscape. Fortunately, there are straightforward and effective ways to protect yourself. Between a cybersecurity suite and commonsense precautions, you should be able to keep every machine you use free from spyware invasions and their malicious intent.
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