What Is Spyware?

Spyware is a type of malicious software that plagues any computer system with an OS that, you guessed it, spies, on you. This means you can get spied on if you own anything that connects to the internet, that you can interact with (laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc). It is that simple. What isn’t so simple is just how numerous variants of spyware plague computer systems these days and put people and governments at risk. Unfortunately, spyware is common these days and surprisingly easy to find (even for free if you know where to look!). This means that your average teenager with a bit of computer knowledge (and some dark web knowledge) can install this type of malicious software for fun.

Why is it important that you educate yourself on spyware? Can it even affect you? What are the signs of a spyware infection? What can happen if I get infected by spyware? The answer to both of these questions and more, are below.

Make sure you read up!

What Are the Types of Spyware Out There?

Spyware is not just one phenomenon. It is a type of software, built by malicious individuals (often by modifying existing software) and there are many types of spyware out there, some built for specific purposes. Unlike a typical computer virus, spyware does not directly damage a computer system. It is built to track people online and collect information silently, in the background, without alerting the user. Thus, spyware can usually scrape a ton of information once it successfully infects a device, such as; personal data (by capturing keyboard strokes), passwords, usernames, browser cookies and hardware information, location information, clipboard data, web form data, and even financial information. Sounds bad? It certainly is.

There are several types of spyware out there, as we said earlier. These are password stealers, browser hijackers, keyloggers, info stealers, and various banking trojans. So, you’ve got your stealers, hijackers, and loggers, basic off, password stealers are there to harvest password information. Such spyware can check clipboards (where you copy and paste things), web forms, and other login areas. Next, info stealers. These can dig deeper and wider, which means log files, documents, media files, and practically any file on your computer can be scanned. Meanwhile, keyloggers record keyboard strokes, and can even take screenshots of what you are doing. Next on the list, we have banking trojans that leverage flaws in the system to tamper with web pages and scam you into entering your details on a fake website.

So, quite a list, then! Hold on, it gets worse. All of the above information that is scraped is taken hostage by various types of spyware software and sent to a specific cybercriminal server (often called a C2 server). From there, there is not much you can do (well, some things, which we will cover in the next section).

Have you ever thought about how spyware infections happen in the first place? Well, great question! Spyware infection cannot happen without the spyware being downloaded on your device first. This can happen if you interact with malicious ads on a website or click on a link in a phishing email. Hence, infections are mostly human error.

It’s time to look at how to best defend yourself against these situations. Read on below!

How to Defend Your Devices From Spyware

Defending your devices against spyware is a multi-pronged approach, meaning that there is no ‘magic button’ fix that you can set and forget. You have to put in a little effort first which comprises; being aware of what spyware is and how it infects your system, as well as the indicators of compromise (IOCs). But we’ve covered that so let’s move along!

Now, if you notice your device is operating poorly, overheating or you are having strange browser issues, you may have spyware. A health computer system (whether that is a smartphone or a computer) should run smoothly without hiccups (and should not be overheating or freezing). If you notice ads popping up all over the place, this is a sign you are infected.

However, do not worry! Let’s take a look at what you need to do to avoid these situations completely. First of all, you need a good browser extension such as uBlock Origin that will remove your digital footprints, making it hard for malicious systems to target you. Next, you need to configure your browser to block third-party cookies and reject malicious web pages. You will find these settings in most modern browsers’ security settings.

You will also need these two tools; a VPN (a virtual private network) and a premium anti-malware suite. The former keeps you encrypted and anonymized while browsing, making it impossible for data to be intercepted in transit, while the latter constantly scans for suspicious traffic or files in real-time. A great example of a VPN + antimalware combo is NordVPN and Bitdefender.

However, ultimately it is up to you. No amount of software can make up for poor internet hygiene habits. You want to avoid interacting with people you don’t know, clicking on links in strange emails, browsing shady websites, and the like. Always check your ‘Downloads’ folder to see what is there and your web browser’s ‘extensions’ area to see what is running.

That’s pretty much it! Remember, unless you are a high-profile target, it is unlikely that you will be hit with elite-level spyware which is practically undetectable. For regular users, spyware is usually more of a nuisance than anything, but you should never just leave it there. Keep all of your devices’ software up-to-date (so you have the latest security updates) and make sure to set your antimalware software to periodically run a full (or deep) system can so that not even the tiniest remnant of malicious software can live on your device. In extreme cases, it is always a good idea to completely reformat (reinstall Windows/Mac or the OS you use) your system to physically cleanse it of any malicious code.