What Is Spyware? A Simple Guide on Cybersecurity
Learn how to protect yourself from malicious software that threatens your data.
Jan 20,2023 January 20,2023
Most people recognize the dangers posed by conventional weapons. But in the digital age, intelligence and state security outfits are more concerned about tools that can consistently and reliably access sensitive personal information and crack encrypted communications. At a time when our entire lives are on our computers and phones, spyware is the world’s most powerful weapon. So, what is spyware?
A spike in cybercrime operations during the pandemic highlighted the evolving threat posed by different types of malware and their increasing level of sophistication. Some of this malware is simply embedded in malicious links and downloaded when users click on them. But some spyware is so sophisticated that it doesn’t even require users to click on an attachment.
In this article, we’ll cover the definition of spyware and outline examples of different software types that can be used in cyberattacks. We’ll also tell you how spyware infections occur, how to protect yourself, and how to remove them.
What Is Spyware and What Does It Do?
Spyware is a term that refers to a type of software designed to perform a series of operations in order to gather or steal personal and organizational information. The software typically comes in the form of a hidden component that is installed on digital devices through freeware and shareware.
Once installed, it begins to send data from the targeted device to a specified location. It can change user configuration settings or steal everything from your passwords to your bank details.
It’s important to note that certain types of software track your online activity without malicious intent. These can be used to customize your online experience or remember your login credentials. But unlike spyware, these aren’t installed without your knowledge.
Malicious spyware is used exclusively to track the target’s activities and profit from stolen data. Here is what spyware can do:
- Record and collect personal details for identity theft purposes
- Interrupt your browsing experience with pop-up ads
- Damage your device by taking up enormous amounts of processing power, memory, and bandwidth
Spyware removal can be quite tricky, as this type of software is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Read on to find out how you can safely remove spyware.
Types of Spyware
Not all spyware is created equal, and some are more dangerous than others. The most commonly used types of spyware include:
- browser hijackers
Adware was originally part of the broader category of spyware, but most experts now differentiate between the two and designate adware as a less harmful “potentially unwanted program” or PUP. Nevertheless, adware isn’t a legitimate software application that uses online advertising. Its malicious intent lies in the fact that most online users download it without understanding its purpose.
It’s commonly designed to generate revenue for its creator by displaying online ads in the user interface of the software or during the installation process. Adware can be used to install additional programs, redirect you to unsafe sites, and produce pop-up ads that have nothing to do with your interests.
The creators can even sell the gathered information about your search history and online habits to third parties that use it to target you with advertisements. Adware either gets installed along with a program that you downloaded or when you visit a website infected with adware.
Keyloggers are used to track users' keystrokes. This can be utilized for legitimate reasons, such as in time-tracking programs used by employers to record their employees’ productivity. However, other keylogging programs are a type of spyware that can be used to gather passwords and other sensitive information.
It should be noted that not all keyloggers are software. There are also keylogging devices. For example, some crooks put hardware keyloggers on ATMs. They install a fake keypad onto the real one and wait for unsuspecting users to type in their PINs.
Browser hijackers are malicious programs that can change the browser’s settings or appearance. They can install spyware, such as keyloggers and adware.
Trojans are designed to appear as legitimate software but are used to steal personal information such as bank account and credit card details or login credentials. The software is often purposefully disguised to appear as something beneficial to users. But its ultimate objective is to insert malicious code into your browser and steal sensitive information or money.
The History of Spyware
Although it doesn’t have an extraordinarily long history, spyware isn’t exactly a new concept. Keyloggers are the oldest type of spyware that date back to the Cold War era in the 1970s when hardware keyloggers were first used. The Soviets bugged the US diplomats’ typewriters with these devices to spy on them.
The term spyware was first used in 1995 in an article critiquing the Microsoft business model. The next time this term popped up was five years later during a press release for firewall software. From then on, it started being used more regularly.
In 1999, one of the first virtual assistants, called BonziBuddy, was released. It was ostensibly a harmless program that appeared as a purple gorilla and spoke to users. This friendly-looking assistant could execute some simple commands such as telling a joke or reading the user’s emails out loud.
Although it seemed like an utterly innocent program, the intentions of BonziBuddy were a bit more sinister. This supposed virtual assistant was collecting data about users without their permission.
That same year, Steve Gibson from Gibson Research discovered adware on his computer and had a hard time removing it. This led to him creating the first anti-spyware software named OptOut.
Examples of Spyware
There is an abundance of products that are part of the spyware category. Some of the examples of spyware include:
One high-profile example of spyware is Pegasus, which was originally designed to thwart terrorist plots and fight organized crime. This highly sophisticated software can be covertly installed on mobile phones. While it can be used to exploit many iOS versions, it’s also spyware for Android.
It was created by Israel’s cyber arms giant, NSO Group. The Israeli government authorized the sale of Pegasus to a long list of countries, and the spyware has since been deployed against politicians, journalists, and human rights activists. Those targeted by the spyware didn’t have to click on any links for their devices to get infected.
In late 2021, Washington placed NSO Group on a blacklist over the potentially negative impact of Pegasus on US national security interests.
Meanwhile, both Azorult and TrickBot were created to steal people’s bank account details. Azorult is mostly spread through ransomware campaigns and can steal credit card details and even cryptocurrency. TrickBot can spread through a company’s network infecting all the devices when they join the network. In these instances, it’s very useful to have skilled IT experts who can identify and fix the issue.
Another spyware is called DarkHotel. As its name implies, it targets people using unsecured Wi-Fi networks at hotels. It’s often deployed against prominent business executives who are tracked and attacked at hotels. This spyware software usually infects the target’s device twice. The first attack is meant to access the device, while the second one installs spyware, such as keylogger.
CoolWebSearch is an extremely popular browser hijacker. There are quite a few variations of this software, but they all use the same methods. Apart from hijacking your browser, it can change the target’s browser settings, redirect them to dodgy websites, and track their browser activity. This may cause the browser to load pages at a sluggish pace or even crash.
How Does One Become a Victim of Malicious Spyware?
So far we have covered what spyware is and what it can do. But how does spyware get on your computer or phone? Here are some of the most common techniques for infecting devices:
- You open a website infected with spyware.
- You download a program that installs spyware.
- You click on a malicious link.
Therefore, you need to be very careful when visiting websites, installing programs, and clicking on hyperlinks. Even if it’s a source that you trust, it can be infected with spyware that ends up on your computer or some other device.
How to Protect Yourself From Spyware
Despite its unique level of sophistication, there are ways to detect Pegasus. Naturally, the same goes for other types of spyware. When it comes to NSO Group’s prized asset, one simple detection method involves using the Amnesty International Mobile Verification Toolkit.
To protect yourself from other types of spyware, apart from the usual anti-malware apps, you can use special anti-spyware software to shield you from these sneaky programs.
So, what is anti-spyware software? This form of spyware protection is designed to shield you from spyware in real-time. It can also remove spyware if it detects it. Some regular antivirus programs also have anti-spyware features.
But these tools aren’t invincible. That’s why you should also take matters into your own hands to ensure your device doesn’t get infected. Here are a few steps you can take:
- Keep your device’s operating system up to date.
- Do not download free software from questionable websites.
- Avoid clicking on links or opening attachments from unknown sources.
How to Tell Whether Your Device Has Spyware
If your anti-virus software doesn’t find any spyware threats, there are signs your device may exhibit that will tell you whether you’ve been targeted. These include the following:
- The device becomes terribly slow.
- You get an ‘incorrect password’ message the first time you type it in, but the same log-in details work the second time.
- You see unfamiliar browser extensions or home pages.
- Pop-up ads start appearing everywhere.
- Your protection and malware detection software isn’t responding.
If you notice these signs, you should scan your device for malware. If it detects any spyware, you need to remove it immediately. You can read the instructions on how to do this in the following section.
How to Remove Spyware
In case you become a target of a spyware attack, remember that these programs may reinstall themselves when you try to get rid of them. But that doesn’t mean the spyware can’t be removed. Spyware removal methods vary according to the device you’re using.
You can use antivirus or anti-spyware apps in most instances. However, this won’t always work. Here is what you can do in that case:
- If your phone is infected with spyware, you can unroot or unjailbreak your device. You can unroot your phone through a file manager or by installing an app that has that option. When it comes to unjailbreaking to disable spyware on an iPhone, updating iOS will usually do the trick.
- To remove spyware from a computer, open Programs in your Settings, and uninstall the fishy program if possible.
- In the worst-case scenario, you’ll need to do a factory reset. This will remove all your data, including the spyware. Just remember to back up your data if you don’t want to lose it.
Make sure that you enable Safe Mode or Airplane Mode on your device. That will incapacitate the spyware so that it doesn’t cause more damage until you remove it.
In layman's terms, spyware is malicious software. It’s designed to steal information on the targeted device, including passwords and credit card details, or track an individual’s browsing history. To protect yourself from malicious spyware, it is advisable that you install a program that can detect it. In addition to that, you can look for signs of spyware infection outlined in this guide.
Yes, in many cases, spyware can be detected. You can use an antivirus program that has a spyware detection feature or anti-spyware software.
Spyware examples include Pegasus, Azorult, TrickBot, DarkHotel, and CoolWebSearch. Our article delves deeper into how these are used and their effectiveness.
In a nutshell, spyware is a piece of software that steals information on a targeted device, including an individual’s browsing habits and sensitive personal data such as passwords.
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