Whether legitimate or illicit, spyware conducts surveillance activities that leave technology users open to data breaches and misuse of their private data. Malicious spyware can target and infect an entire network, compromising the data security of the whole business enterprise.
This article contains an overview of spyware prevention and is aimed at both non-technical individual users, managers and IT administrators. Being aware of how spyware works helps you take the first step; stopping spyware from penetrating your network in the first place.
What Is Spyware?
Spyware is malicious software that enters your computer or other devices, gathers personal data, and forwards it to a third party without your knowledge or consent. Spyware can also be legitimate software that monitors data for commercial purposes like targeted advertising. However, the focus of this article is on the malicious spyware used explicitly to profit from stolen data.
Spyware stays hidden as it records information and tracks user online and offline activities. It monitors everything the user enters, uploads, downloads, and stores. Some types of spyware can also activate the cameras and microphones on the device.
What Does Spyware Do?
Although all spyware types track and record activity on the device, specific spyware strains have particular behaviours. Meaning, criminal agents use spyware to collect personal information and sensitive data in various ways, including the following:
- Capturing and recording browser history
- Capturing information messaging, email, and social apps
- Capturing screenshots
- Keylogging, which is recording everything the user types, including login credentials and banking information
- Recording audio and video
- Remote control of the entire device
A grey area for legitimate spyware is when it’s marketed as parental control or employee monitoring software. There is also a more sinister side to spyware, such as stalkerware or spouseware.
How Spyware Infects Devices
Malicious spyware must be masked to install unnoticed on the victim’s device. Bundleware is another name for bundled software packages and spyware’s most common delivery method. The spyware install is bundled with regular downloads or embedded in other legitimate websites.
Other times, bundled spyware installs discreetly and without warning during a software installation and may even be mentioned in the license agreement — though it won’t use the term ‘spyware’. The user must agree to the complete software bundle, including the spyware.
Spyware can also enter a device through the usual malware pathways, like landing on a compromised website or opening a malicious email attachment.
Is Spyware Malware or A Virus?
Spyware and viruses are very similar in that both are examples of malware or malicious software; otherwise, they are not related. They display different behaviour.
Both a computer virus and spyware will install themselves into a host device and may replicate and spread onto other devices on the network. Spyware is usually a passive listener, whereas viruses, or ransomware, tend to be destructive by deleting, encrypting or damaging user data.
Some viruses take spyware with them as they spread, though you can end up with several types of malware from suspicious websites, links, email attachments, and infected hardware (USB drives, for example).
6 Common Types Of Spyware
Spyware’s primary uses are monitoring and storing a user’s online activities and capturing sensitive data such as usernames, passwords, and banking information. Some versions force unwanted pop-up ads into your internet browser or overtax the device’s processor. Other spyware types create website traffic.
Here are 6 of the most common types of spyware:
Adware displays advertisements while you’re browsing or using advertising-supported software. It installs itself on your device, observes your browsing history, and then delivers intrusive ads.
Keyloggers record user keystrokes and save the information in a log file. This type of spyware collects everything the user types into a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Infostealers collect information from the user’s system. For example, they can scan for specific data and harvest browsing history, instant messaging sessions, and documents. Some strains disappear after performing these actions, making them even harder to detect.
4. Red Shell
Red Shell spyware installs itself along with certain games and tracks the gamers’ online activities. The developers state that the goal is to leverage user behaviour in order to develop better games and marketing campaigns. However, the full extent of the recorded data may be beyond the users’ knowledge and consent.
5. Tracking Cookies
Cookies are helpful because they instantly log users onto favourite websites and serve relevant advertisements. However, tracking cookies are types of spyware because they follow the user’s browsing activities, compile the browsing history, and record login attempts. A criminal agent can use these cookies to recreate login sessions.
Rootkits enable hackers to access computers and devices at a deep level. They exploit security vulnerabilities by using a Trojan horse or logging into a device as an administrator. Rootkits are difficult, if not impossible, to detect. However, you can prevent them by keeping up to date with reliable antivirus software.
How To Spot Spyware
Although spyware is designed to be undetectable, a few warning signs will help you identify whether you are infected. Pay attention to the following:
- Your device begins to freeze or crash frequently.
- Your computer or mobile device is running slower than usual.
- You notice new or unfamiliar icons in the taskbar.
- You start receiving random error messages when using familiar apps that never gave you trouble before.
- You see that you are getting many pop-ups while browsing.
- Your pre-set browser homepage changes without any action from you.
- Web searches redirect you to another search engine.
Spyware vs Adware vs Malvertising
Spyware, adware and malvertising differ significantly; the main similarity is that they can all be categorised as malware.
Spyware is a direct infringement of the user’s privacy because it scans personal data. It gains access to personal data that the website usually doesn’t allow access to or data requiring user consent.
Adware generates revenue when the user clicks on advertisements but doesn’t (usually) infringe on the user’s privacy. While adware may create an annoyance, it’s a hindrance and nothing more. Unlike spyware, it’s not usually malicious but makes continuous interruptions through advertisements.
Malvertising is a distant cousin, whereby cybercriminals inject malicious code into legitimate online advertising networks. When users click a link in the ad, the code redirects them to malicious websites.
11 Quick Tips To Prevent Spyware
It’s far more effective to take preventive measures, so here are eight ways you and your organisation can prevent spyware from infecting your devices, systems, or the entire network.
If you are a user and unsure of any of these steps, check with your internal IT Team (who can contact Securus if they need additional assistance)
- Be sure that you use the latest antivirus with anti-spyware features on all your workstations and mobile devices. New features are released regularly to combat the latest malware campaigns.
- Keep up with your antivirus, anti-spyware, and operating system updates. These updates contain the latest security patches needed to protect your devices.
- Only visit trusted websites. If you end up on a suspicious site, avoid clicking any links and leave the site. Your organisation should train staff accordingly.
- Only download laptop and desktop software from publishers you trust like Microsoft, McAfee, or Apple. Again, educate staff on these guidelines as well.
- Only download mobile apps from trusted app stores and trusted publishers within those stores.
- Never click links contained in online ads, even if they look legitimate.
- Do not open suspicious emails. Furthermore, never click links contained in suspicious emails. Please forward them to your IT department.
- Whenever possible, avoid downloading email attachments, especially when the sender is unknown.
- Avoid email attachments and links whenever possible, as these often contain malicious payloads.
- Browsers contain built-in blockers, and you should set the filters on high to maximise protection.
- Limit runnable applications to those on a pre-approved allow list. Your IT team can choose which applications to run and set permissions.
Is It Easy To Remove Spyware?
Removing spyware is far from easy and should be performed by your IT Team. Uninstalling suspicious applications from the Control Panel is not sufficient to restore your machine to a safe operating condition.
Should your IT Team not be experienced in virus, malware and spyware removal, Securus Communications is here to help, so feel free to get in touch.
The best overall course of action we recommend at Securus is:
- Back up the data of the infected device on a separate USB drive.
- Scan that entire USB drive on a hardened safe machine for viruses, ransomware, malware and spyware using the latest AVI software.
- Wipe the infected device completely, including the disk partition
- Install a fresh copy of the operating system
- Install the latest security patches for that operating system
- Install the latest antivirus software such as Microsoft Defender on the device
- Ensure this antivirus software has anti-malware and anti-spyware protection
- Consider a full EPP or EDR solution
- Enable pop-up blockers
- Restore the data from the clean USB drive
- Ensure the user is given additional cyber security training
Spyware is a threat anytime you are accessing services over the internet. This type of malware slips in undetected and captures valuable personal information and sensitive corporate data.
Thus, protecting your devices and the personal information contained on them must be a priority in any security plan. Understanding how spyware works is merely the first step, and subsequent steps involve utilising the antivirus and anti-malware tools and services available to you.
From anti-malware, anti-phishing, SEO poisoning, and 2FA to SASE and cloud-based air-gap immutable backup storage, Securus has a security solution to suit your requirement and budget. If you would like to discuss your network security requirements in more detail with one of our cyber security professionals, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.