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.

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What is Spyware?

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 is installed on your system without your knowledge and runs quietly in the background collecting all sorts of information. Anything from your distinct keystrokes, authentications, personal emails, web form data, internet usage, credit card information and even screenshots of your activities can be collected using spyware. 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 considered 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.

Also, 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.

In other words, be careful when downloading a software onto your computer, and make sure to read the User Agreement, Terms of Service, and Privacy policy to figure out what information is stored and how it is later used. If you read anything about sharing your information with third parties, then you might want to double check with the software’s support team to see exactly what that means.

Types of Spyware

In general, spyware falls into one of 4 distinct types:

Adware

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.

Trojans

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

Probably one of the least harmful forms of spyware, tracking cookies are cookies that are installed onto your system when you browse the web. Tracking cookies 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

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, system monitors are being installed by unknowing internet users through free software applications. 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 My System Get Infected 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 you can get your system infected with spyware:

  1. Clicking on or accepting a prompt from a pop-up, especially if you don’t read it first.
  2. Downloading software from a shady and unreliable source.
  3. Opening spam email attachments, or even attachments from unknown senders.
  4. Torrenting without proper security methods.
  5. Not updating your OS and opening up vulnerabilities in your system.
  6. Downloading free software.

What Do I Do if I have Spyware?

Let me start by saying that it’s not always possible for you to know your system is infected without using a legitimate anti-malware program. 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 your system was being slowed down by spyware.

Delete Temporary Files

A lot of times, spyware will be saved onto your system in the temp files folder. Data that it steals or saves can also be found in this folder. 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, your chances of finding each and every threat on your computer is exponentially increased.

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.

  1. Always make sure to read the ToS, User Agreement, and Privacy policy of any software or application you download.
  2. Stay away from freeware (free software) as they usually make their money selling your data to third parties.
  3. Make sure you have a credible anti-malware program running on your computer.
  4. Have one or two on-demand anti-malware programs ready to perform a hard scan whenever you want it.
  5. 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, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make sure you’re protected. 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.

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