Spyware is a type of software that attempts to spy on the actions of people using the computer on which it is installed. Different spyware programs have different applications but most will at least install on a user’s computer, monitor some or all of their actions, and then relay this information back to a remote server. While spyware is most typically taken to mean malicious software it also has genuine applications for individuals and businesses.
What Spyware Does
The primary function of spyware is to spy on the user but this action alone would prove useless so the information that spyware programs collect is typically used for some purpose. In the case of malicious software it is usually delivered to a third party, remote server where the information can be used for many different purposes from logging general Internet usage to retrieving usernames and passwords for online accounts.
Users and administrators may also install spyware that monitors websites that are visited; this has genuine application in homes to ensure that children are not visiting unsuitable sites as well as in business to monitor employees in the same way.
Since spyware has become such a prevalent problem, an entire antispyware software industry has sprung up which creates spyware combating software and maintains extensive databases on current and older threats. This software proves especially beneficial because many such programs will attempt to remain undetected in order to complete their task.
How Systems Become Infected With Spyware
There are two primary methods of infection – users downloading the software on their computer unaware of either the program’s existence or intent, and through exploiting software vulnerabilities.
Some spyware programs are included as part of an installation of other programs. It may be included in the End User License Agreement or EULA as a default option and some Internet users willingly download and install less benign spyware because it allows them the free use of otherwise commercially priced software.
Installation Through Software Vulnerabilities
Alternatively, the spyware author may aim to take advantage of known software vulnerabilities. This is especially a problem with computers running Microsoft Windows operating systems and using Internet Explorer. When a user visits a particular site which is maintained by the spyware author, the program exploits the vulnerability and downloads to the user’s computer without their knowledge or consent.
The Function Of Spyware
The primary function of spyware varies depending on the actual program that has been installed.
Advertising is one of the biggest uses of such software because of the money that is involved. The program may track the user’s Internet activity to determine the most appropriate advertisements to display and then begin to display pop-up advertisements or even replace the advertisements that are found on other websites. On occasion pornographic and illegal advertisements may be displayed indiscriminately on a person’s computer. Some software may replace an advertiser’s affiliate link with their own affiliate ID; this type of malware has become known as stealware or affiliate fraud.
Digital identity theft is also big and profitable business and spyware is the ideal way to collect the necessary data to steal a person’s ID. The software can log Internet addresses as well as usernames and passwords before transmitting this data back to the thief. This not only allows them access to bank accounts but can provide them with all personal information belonging to the user.
Secondary Infections And Other Problems
As well as the primary problems associated with spyware infection, there are other undesirable side effects. Spyware programs usually hunt in packs and rarely travel alone so once a system has been infected it may become unresponsive and crash. Software may experience problems, search pages and home pages may be hijacked, and hard disk and CPU usage may operate under extreme load. Some software is so badly written that attempting to uninstall it can lead to a system becoming completely unresponsive.
Other Uses Of Spyware
As well as these illegal uses of spyware programs there are also legitimate and even beneficial uses. Programs can be used to ensure a child’s protection while one. They can help protect a company’s assets and time by monitoring employee’s online activities (although debate rages as to whether this is beneficial or indeed legitimate). Suspicious partners can even install software to track their partner’s online activity.
Preventing And Curing Infection
As the Internet continues to grow so too does the problem of spyware and other malicious software. Unfortunately there is a lot of money to be made for the criminals that are able to write and deploy effective spyware applications and this means that the problem will almost certainly continue but there are ways in which you can help to protect your system and yourself.
- Always be aware of what you’re downloading and installing on your computer because it may harbor unwanted spyware.
- Purchase and install antispyware software.
- Use the real time protection that it offers.
- Set the automated scan to routinely check your computer for infection.
- Always be sure that you use reputable sites to download files especially if you are looking for freeware or shareware files.
- Be certain to read the EULA and never just click the Accept button without checking what you are accepting or you may regret it.
Using The Internet Safely
The Internet is a valuable resource to individuals and groups in many different ways but you should take precautions to ensure that you know what you have on your computer. Otherwise you might be giving away personal details and enabling others to see exactly what you are doing when you are using your computer.