Just because you’re browsing the internet all alone in your room, it doesn’t mean that there’s no one there watching you.
And no, this isn’t the beginning of a horror movie. This is the tale of a very real online threat.
Spyware combines surveillance and malware capabilities, and it’s one of the most common security threats in the digital world.
And I’m here to tell you all about it.
How does Spyware Work?
In short, spyware is a type of malware that gains access to a computer without the user’s consent.
Spyware gathers your personal information and relays it to cybercriminals, who can then sell it to advertisers, data firms, or other interested parties. They can also use it themselves.
Spyware usually aims to:
- Track and sell your internet usage data
- Capture your credit card or bank account information
- Steal your personal identity
But how does it work?
Once installed on your device, spyware runs silently in the background without you even being aware that there’s a program running.
As part of its malicious code, it will begin by monitoring your internet activity, tracking your login and password information, and spying on your every move.
It sends all this information back to the spyware owner. Usually, most cybercriminals implant a trigger system that notifies them when you enter passwords or make online payments. But some spyware variants can send all your data in real-time.
Some types of spyware can install additional software, like adware, to generate some extra bit of revenue. Other types change the settings on your device, to undermine your cybersecurity and damage you files. But this isn’t usually their main purpose.
Spyware usually ends up on your machine because of something you did (and most likely didn’t even mean to). It tricks you into installing it.
Maybe you clicked a button on a pop-up window.
Or maybe you installed a weird software package and clicked on ‘Agree’ on every pop-up.
Instead, a spyware infection will rely on several tactics.
Piggybacked Software Installation
This means that the spyware tries to piggyback on the installation process of another software. This is common with software bundles or software that you download through peer-to-peer filesharing clients.
Anyone with malicious intentions can attach spyware to bundles by hiding it among legitimate files.
For example, you might want to download a bundle of three software: a photo editor, a video editor, and an illustrator. When you run the installation process, a seemingly inconspicuous “File viewer” will be installed to. You might not think much of it and let it run. But that’s the spyware hidden in the bundle.
Unless you read the installation list closely, you might not even notice you’re getting more than the programs you wanted.
This tactic is mostly limited to PCs.
This refers to spyware that tries to download and install itself on your device by getting you to click on pop-up windows on various sites. Any site that has ads can inadvertently contain these pop-ups.
In most cases, the pop-up will pretend you’re downloading a popular app or even a game.
A common scam circulating among both Android and iOS users is the fake virus alert. Basically, a pop-up window tells you your device is infected. These alerts are made to look as if they are coming from Google or Apple and usually contain a ‘Remove Virus’ button. This button will install a supposed security app, that is in fact malware.
But the installation process runs as it normally would. There’s nothing to indicate you’re installing a malicious app.
Browser add-ons have recently regained popularity in Chrome and Firefox stores. But keep in mind that these two are nowhere near as secure as Google Play Store or App Store. So cybercriminals take advantage of this by adding spyware to seemingly legitimate add-ons.
Masquerading as Anti-spyware Software
This might seem a bit cruel, but sadly it’s one of the most popular ways to lure in victims. You might see pop-ups claiming that your device is infected with a virus. Or that some creepy stalker is looking to break into your network.
But luckily, this pop-up redirects you to the best free anti-malware anti-spyware software, right?
Except, the thing you’re downloading is malicious software. While it can be any type of malware hidden in the pop-up, spyware is a pretty popular choice for cybercriminals. This is why it’s important to have your antivirus scan all your downloads and flag potentially damaging software.
Types of Spyware
Spyware is designed to stay hidden, so it’s understandable that the general public might have some misconceptions about it. As opposed to computer viruses that are more popular in the media, spyware is generally connected to criminal surveillance activities.
But in reality, there are several types of spyware in our digital landscape:
- Commercial spyware
- Browser hijackers
- System monitors
- Modem hijackers
And they operate differently from one another.
There’s no point in sugarcoating it. There’s a lot of money to be made from spyware. So, it’s no wonder commercial spyware exists.
Commercial spyware is available to buy online as a subscription-based service. And it’s very different from other types of spyware. For one thing, it doesn’t exactly rely on unauthorized access or trickery for you to install it. The person who purchased the service is given instructions on how to install the spyware on your device.
And there’s quite a market out there. Jealous spouses use it to check on their significant other, overprotective parents use it to monitor their children, and stalkers use it to snoop on their victims.
But commercial spyware is by far the most popular with companies that employ these services to monitor employee productivity. While this practice might be debatable on a moral scale, it’s not illegal to spy on employees in many places.
Keyloggers are a staple spyware for cybercriminals. Keyloggers are available for both computers and mobile devices, and they’re designed to monitor and record all your keystrokes.
Whenever you enter your passwords, credit card information, or when you write a private message, this malicious software records every letter, number, and symbol.
Adware is a type of malware that pesters you with pop-up ads in hopes that you will click on them. But some adware variants can also monitor and record your browsing habits. Advertisers, for example, pay a lot of money for this kind of information. It can tell them about your likes, dislikes, hobbies…etc. It can be valuable information.
Cybercriminals also use this information because they can sell it to interested parties or use it to impersonate you online.
Browser hijackers are probably one of the most annoying variants of spyware that records your online activities. Once it knows your browsing habits, it keeps redirecting your traffic and impacting your day-to-day browsing.
Browser hijackers start by modifying your homepage and resetting your bookmarks. But they also redirect your traffic to shady sites and fill you with advertisement spam.
These are the most advanced form of spyware. They’re generally used by law enforcement agencies and governments.
System monitors track browsing habits, app usage, and keystrokes like other forms of spyware, but they can also capture audio and video from a device’s microphone and camera. Sometimes they can even record GPS location data.
The most advanced system monitor spyware, like NSO Group’s Pegasus, can even record conversations from end-to-end encrypted messaging systems, like iMessage, WhatsApp, or Signal.
Trojans are a popular option in the cybercriminal world. The spyware software pretends to be a legitimate app that people want to install or file to download. That’s why they can be found on my third-party install websites and torrenting websites.
It can be anything from a media player to a video game file to a system file.
As soon as you run the dummy file, the spyware latches itself onto your system. Even if you delete the trojan, the spyware will still keep tabs on you.
Modem hijackers are probably the oldest form of spyware and is relatively obsolete today as it requires a dial-up connection.
It works by tying into your phone line to make unauthorized calls and access member websites through your online connection.
This spyware once caused significant financial damage, by making calls to 800 or 900 numbers. Because dial-up generally charges based on how often you make calls or use the internet, this can cause a phone bill to skyrocket.
With the development of cybersecurity technologies over the years, many early spyware programs have disappeared, while other forms of spyware have become more sophisticated and complex.
And if you take ethics out of the equation, you might be surprised just how efficient spyware is.
Here’s how some of the most famous spyware examples fared in the past.
Why is Spyware Dangerous?
The effects of spyware range from gathering user habits for marketing purposes to targeted attacks by governments against political activists.
Spyware is silently installed on your system and will track and monitor you.
All the data you generate is then sent to whoever programmed the malicious code.
Fortunately, many of today’s security tools can detect anomalous network connections and uncover spyware.
If your PC has been infected, install a good antivirus with a spyware removal feature. Keep in mind that more advanced spyware will try to disable your security tools to avoid detection. Therefore, make it a habit to periodically check your anti-malware and anti-spyware tools. Regularly run scans to ensure you have the best spyware protection.
As far as mobile spyware is concerned, things are a little trickier. Removing spyware from a mobile device can be more difficult depending on how deeply embedded into the system the spyware is. Often, the only option is to perform a factory reset.
How to Detect Spyware
Most spyware programs are designed to run undetected by the user. But it takes quite a toll on your device and can cause your device to start behaving erratically. Since spyware takes a lot of resources, your device’s GPU and other components will be overworked.
Keep an eye out for these four common signs of spyware:
- Your device is physically hot.
- Your battery drains faster than usual.
- You hear weird background noise during calls.
- You notice a static distortion in your audio. Maybe even an echo.
But there are other spyware variants that can cause quite some weird behavior on your device. Here are some red flags.
- Your browser has been hijacked, and your homepage changed.
- Your searches are being redirected.
- You receive expensive phone bills for calls you didn’t dial.
- You find mysterious files or apps on your device.
- Your files are being deleted or moved to other folders.
- Your files are being uploaded to cloud accounts without your permission.
- You find emails in your “Sent” inbox that you didn’t send.
- Your device runs slowly, freezes up, or crashes frequently.
If you notice any of these signs, run a scan for spyware. If your antivirus finds something, quarantine and delete the infected files immediately.
And don’t panic if you see a familiar-sounding file being flagged. Spyware tries to pass off as a legitimate app. You might see something like iphonecleaner or windowssecurity being flagged.
If you find a particularly persistent variant that makes spyware removal difficult, try resetting your device to factory settings. Just be careful that this will delete all your data unless you have a backup ready.
How to Prevent Spyware
As with most malware, the best way to protect yourself from spyware comes from your own behavior. Just like you lock your doors and close your blinds, you might want to take some steps and protect your digital identity too.
Desktops and Laptops
Spyware for PCs started out relatively benign. Like software for monitoring employees’ and children’s internet usage. But cybercriminals saw a potential and in the early 2000s found illegal uses for this program.
Here are eight ways to protect your computer:
- Use a good antivirus that will alert you to any malware threats.
- Don’t open emails from unknown senders.
- Don’t click on links from direct messages you get from people you don’t know.
- Don’t download files unless they come from a trusted source.
- Hover your mouse over links before clicking on them to make sure it’s the right webpage.
- Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever possible for your online accounts.
- Update your operating system and software often, so you get the latest security patches.
- Use a VPN to add another layer of protection to your connection.
Spyware is still relatively new to the mobile industry. Sadly, this means that the device’s in-built security systems might not be optimized to deal with spyware threats on its own.
- Use a good antivirus.
- Only click links in SMS’s, instant messages, and emails from known senders.
- Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever possible for your online accounts and your phone accounts.
- Don’t ignore system updates as they may contain important security patches.
- Review app permissions to minimize the risk of a malicious app downloads.
- Avoid downloading apps outside the iOS App Store or Google Play Store.
- Protect your device with biometric authentication.
- Use a VPN to add another layer of protection to your connection.
How Common is Spyware?
Cybersecurity experts estimate that About 80% of all internet users have their system affected by spyware at one point. Yet 89% of those 80% were unaware their systems were infected by spyware.
What is the Difference between Malware and Spyware?
Spyware is actually a type of malware. Malware refers to any malicious programs designed to cause harm to your devices and steal your private data, botnets, trojans, viruses, etc.
Can a Spyware Hack be Traced?
It takes a lot of technical know-how and coding skills to find the spyware program and to track an IP address back to it. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut way to tell, because it depends on the spyware variant, your device, and how cunning the perpetrator is.
How can I Tell if my Device has Spyware?
Look for these common spyware signs:
- Overheating device
- Battery draining faster than usual
- Background noise
- Audio distortion
Run a scan for spyware if you notice anything suspicious.
What is a Keylogger?
A keylogger is short for keyboard logger, and it’s a subtype of spyware that works by monitoring and recording all your keystrokes. With a keylogger, cybercriminals can steal your passwords, credit card details, and other personal information.
Have you ever dealt with spyware? Let me know what happened in the comments below.
Until next time, stay safe and secure!