Spyware was not always used for nefarious purposes. In fact spyware was originally used as tracking software that was intended for legitimate use such as for employee productivity monitoring (under legal circumstances) and even parental control.
Even it’s use for advertising was originally intended to make things better with contextual ads designed to appeal to the most relevant needs of users who browse the web instead of simply making one-size fits all ads on the internet that often miss their mark and run out of budget before they even reach the right audience.
From Tracking to Spyware
But it’s when these pieces of software overstep their bounds and violate the privacy of users that they become spyware. With that being said, spyware may well be the most common type of malware propagating on the Internet.
What was once known simply as tracking software becomes spyware when their method of collecting data goes behind the users consent (a clear violation of their privacy) to not only communicate their data, but also find ways of spreading (much like Trojans) to more places (and devices) to collect and send more data.
The term spyware was actually first used in 1995 to mock Microsoft’s business model in a Usenet post. The term was mostly used to describe hardware equipment such as hidden cameras to ‘spy’ on people. During the explosion of the Internet in the early 2000s the term saw use as more and more software-based spyware were being discovered.
Extending beyond how it collects data, the places by which it sends and makes use of this data is also a critical component of what constitutes spyware. While stolen data is often times used for advertising either through blatant on-the-nose advertising on browsers and even email, the worst ones actually sell much more critical data such as credit card information and passwords collected by keyloggers.
Difference from Adware: Entry and Propagation
Much like any other malware, spyware tries to infect systems in the most innocuous ways. Often times they piggyback on legitimate or seemingly legitimate software in order to take root on a device.
Adware on the other hand is usually something more intentional. Plenty of users actually install adware due to their (sometimes only supposed) benefits and do not mind seeing ads in exchange of what they were receiving in return. While Adware can also overstep its bounds by showing more ads and overriding an otherwise less advertised browsing experience.
Spyware is more nefarious in its entry, and unlike Adware, it actually actively propagates as its goal is to collect as much user data as possible. And contrary to Adware, spyware very rarely makes itself known, often content on collecting and sending data rather than outright overriding the user’s browsing experience for profit.
Where spyware makes money is through the sale of said acquired data. This can be as tame as selling your contact information to advertisers to critical one such as jeopardizing financial credentials for outright thievery of people’s money.
Anti-Spyware Initiatives and Software
While unobtrusive by itself, a computer infected with spyware may show signs of performance slowdown, most obviously in the Internet connection speeds as spyware makes use of it extensively in order to send out any information it gathers. The use of on-demand anti-spyware tools like AdwCleaner, Malwarebytes, & HerdProtect is necessary to clean an already infected system.
On a bad case of spyware infection, the best course of action may simply be backing up data and reinstalling the operating system. With spyware so well rooted to the system, it might be nigh impossible to remove them even with the help of anti-spyware or malware removal tools.
Once on a clean system, there is the matter of preventing spyware from another case of infection. Traditional anti-viruses and anti-malware work as preventive measures with the use of their established threat libraries. Specialized software such as those against keyloggers are also available with some of them for free.
Non-traditional & non-detection based approaches to security may also prove effective to preventing spyware from infecting devices. While spyware may be good in covering its tracks it eventually still needs to run a process in order to gather and send data, an area where application whitelisting and control does well in securing.
Regardless of whether you started on fresh on your operating system or labored heavily into cleaning up your system, it is generally advisable to change your passwords and other login credentials online to make sure that no information that was already stolen can do any further damage.
A Connected World Means Living on the Edge of Convenience and Greater Risks
The threat of spyware will always be looming for as long as data can be monetized. With the numerous ways users can communicate comes equal opportunities to be infected by spyware. Users need to be more vigilant to the telltale signs of spyware infection and to undertake the necessary anti-spyware initiatives to steer clear from becoming a victim.