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Putting the spotlight on spyware

You don’t know where it might be hiding so it’s best to be on guard…We’re talking about spyware, otherwise known as stalkware. It’s a type of malware—but don’t ever call it a “spyware virus”. Although it infects all types of devices (it’s not fussy!), viruses are designed to embed into your files or system and replicate themselves. Spyware is a lone ranger: It doesn’t replicate. Yet what is spyware, how does it become an unwelcome guest in your machine and what exactly does it do? Read on for a full definition, including the many different members of this unscrupulous family. You’ll also learn to recognize spyware, plus how to prevent and remove spyware. And don’t forget: Are you a top attraction for spyware makers?  

What is spyware exactly and what does spyware do?  

The clue is in the name. This software monitors your online behavior or harvests your data and then either stores it for later use or forwards it straight to a third party—all without your knowledge or consent. (Usually that third party will be the creator or sender of the spyware). It’s potentially dangerous because it could give cybercriminals full access to your sensitive information and even your entire digital identity! It’s also incredibly sneaky and excellent at hiding, usually by attaching itself to your operating system and running quietly in the background…  

Spyware programs work in different ways—but more on this later. In a nutshell, keyloggers can monitor your keystrokes as you type and collect confidential information like passwords, and credit card numbers. Others may help themselves to the e-mail addresses in your contacts’ list or track your browsing habits. And did you know that some spyware can secretly change your security settings to open the door for even more spyware? Certain strains are even capable of activating the camera and microphone in your device so they can watch and listen to you undetected. Shh… 

How does spyware infect your devices? 

Recognizing spyware is tricky so caution is the best first line of defense. Most spyware needs an accomplice: You. It tries to get potential victims to click on a link, which is commonly delivered via an email, ad, pop-up window, or text message. Malicious code can also be embedded on legitimate websites, so please look before you leap! Here a brief overview of popular spyware vehicles that are always revving up:  

Web downloads: Software from unauthorized sources can be laced with spyware. Once you download the software, you may get more than you bargained for. Sometimes, even official software can contain apps that direct your information to third parties—as was the case with Red Shell spyware that was discovered in certain PC games.  

Pop-ups/advertisements: Not all pop-ups are dangerous, but some can be malicious. Clicking on pop-ups that appear to be marketing or PC advice, and then following the instructions could put you at risk of malware.  

Emails, SMS (Short Messaging Service) or MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service): Any message that contains a link is a potential risk, as clicking on it can trigger a spyware download or direct you to a website tainted with malicious code. 

Mobile apps: When you download a third-party app onto your mobile phone or tablet, it could come bundled with spyware. This is potentially very dangerous because it typically doesn’t require user interaction to execute commands! Once installed, it can use your device’s camera and microphone to spy on nearby activity, record phone calls, and log browsing activity and keystrokes. One recent example is Pegasus spyware, which can read text messages, steal passwords, eavesdrop on calls, and even track your physical location. 

Backdoors: Imagine locking the front door but leaving the back door and all the windows to your home open? That would allow criminals unauthorized, easy access and it’s no different with your devices. Cybercriminals can use so-called “backdoors” to bypass normal security and authentication processes. Weak or re-used passwords are one possible backdoor. So is old software which may contain security loopholes known to hackers. Once a cybercriminal gains access, they can copy your data, record your keyboard strokes, or listen in. Creepy? Oh yes. Close that (legitimate) “Update Software” pop-up at your peril… 

The usual suspects? Meet common spyware types and their preferred methods 

Life is rarely simple, and spyware is no different. It’s not just one type of program, but an entire category of slightly diverse malware that tracks and/or harvests data in various ways and wears different disguises to camouflage itself. Here a line-up: 

  • System monitors track digital activity, including the websites you visited, and may capture sensitive information. Keyloggers are poster children for this type of malware.  
  • Tracking cookies are files which can be implanted by a website to follow you as you use the internet.  
  • Adware could monitor you to sell your data to advertisers so they can serve up targeted ads.  
  • Trojans are malicious programs that misrepresent themselves to appear routine or helpful but may carry out hidden functions like deliver spyware programs. Ghost RAT is a well-known trojan horse that looked like a computer game but was made for spying. RAT stands for “remote administration tool” because Ghost RAT’s operators use a server to control victims’ devices remotely. 

Ghost in the machine? Spot the symptoms of spyware  

Spyware is designed to be the ultimate ghost—undetectable and untraceable—so it’s difficult to tell if it’s there at all. There are warning signs though. Is your once speedy device running more slowly? Is it often freezing or crashing? Has your browser homepage suddenly changed or are there new icons in the task bar? Are you seeing a ton of pop-ups? Do web searches suddenly redirect you to a different search engine? Are you suddenly getting random error messages when using apps that have always worked fine before?  

If you answered “yes!” to any of the above, you may be a victim of spyware. Thankfully, help is at hand. Don’t panic—read on.   

How do I remove spyware? 

Install a reputable anti-malware solution, like Avira Free Antivirus, as it scans your system to help detect and remove spyware. It also helps block adware and other cyber-nasties like Trojans and worms, which may contain spyware. Then remember to keep your device squeaky clean by removing junkware, PUPs (Potentially Unwanted Applications), and other unnecessary software that can slow it down. An antivirus is essential, but your own behavior online is equally important, so do take the steps below. Plus, there’s a wealth of other security technology to keep you safer online.  

Prevention is better than a cure: Help stop spyware before it gets started 

  • Adjust browser settings: The default security settings of your browser might not be offering enough protection from malware, so consider adjusting them to block suspicious pop-ups, websites, and plugins. Did you know that Avira Browser Safety helps detect unwanted apps in your downloads? You can get it as a free add-on for Firefox and Google—and it’s also available as part of Avira Safe Shopping for Opera and Microsoft Edge.   
  • Think before you click: We live in a digital world and it’s easy to unthinkingly click your way through it. Never open links received in text or social media messages from unknown contacts—and even if it is a friend, check with them first. Their account may have been hijacked.  
  • Avoid pop-ups: Pop-ups can make wonderful promises. Don’t be tempted to click on them.  
  • Never download unknown apps: We’ve all felt the urge to give an app with great reviews a go! If it’s not available through a reputable site, please give it a miss.    
  • Read the terms & conditions: No, we’re not trying to torture you. Here software manufacturers usually explain how they collect and use your data, so it’s in your best interest to read them and avoid surprises—before clicking “download”. Also be aware of stalkerware which lets you spy on someone—like a spouse. The developers of stalkerware may try to squeeze through legal loopholes, by calling their products parental control solutions).  
  • Keep your software updated: Like a car, all systems must be maintained to function at their safest and best. If you see an advanced version of your browser or any software from a trusted source, get it fast. A software and driver updater like Avira Software Updater alerts you to outdated programs and provides secure download links so you know that the software you’re getting is clean. 
  • Use a password manager: Avira Password Manager generates and helps securely store your passwords for you. It also comes with an autofill function. So, your details are automatically entered as you log in to your online accounts. As there’s no typing, there’s nothing for the keylogger spyware to record! 

If the thought of so many levels of online protection makes your head spin, consider a multi-feature solution like Avira Free Security or its premium, subscription-based cousin Avira Prime. Both are packed with a diverse spectrum of features so you can bank, shop, game, and browse online more securely.  

Who is most at risk? 

While we all generate vast amounts of data whenever we go online, some of us are more attractive spyware targets. Are you a heavy user of online banking? You just got more alluring to cyber-thieves looking to capture financial details. Businesses also need to be vigilant against spyware to protect their confidential information and finances, plus keep corporate espionage tools out of their networks. 

It’s also a political tool: Authoritarian governments have used spyware, like Pegasus, to keep tabs on journalists and human rights activists. Yet even if you’re not a CEO or activist looking to topple a regime, we’re all potentially one unthinking click or download away from installing spyware. Don’t be your own worst enemy! 

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Freelance Cybersecurity Writer
Nicola Massier-Dhillon is an experienced cybersecurity and technology writer. Nicola spent many years as a senior copywriter and creative lead in marketing agencies, crafting compelling content and campaigns for major tech brands like HP, Dell, and Microsoft. She originally hales from Namibia and is a passionate advocate for the conservation of wild habitats--also putting her words to work for charities, eco-tourism, and healthcare. Nicola spends her time looking after her (wild) twins, rescue cats, and a crested gecko called Giles.