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What Is Spyware?

Lukas Grigas
Cybersecurity Content Writer

You might think that spyware is about government secrets, private detectives, and action movies. In fact, it's malicious software you don't want in your system. As the name suggests, spyware is designed to observe your online behavior and use that knowledge for wrongdoing. Here's what you need to know about spyware and how to protect your privacy.

What is spyware?

Spyware sits silently on your device, collecting information and sending it to hackers. It can also scan your files, install additional spyware, modify internet settings, and attract even more malware. Reasons someone may use spyware to snoop around someone's digital life include:

  • Collecting data about someone's online activity and sending it to marketers.

  • Stealing credit card details, passwords, and other sensitive information.

  • Tracking a spouse's behavior out of jealousy.

  • Spying on employees to learn about their online activities.

This malicious software can live in your system for months before you notice anything suspicious.

How does spyware work?

Most spyware applications work similarly and in most cases follow a three-step process:

  1. Infiltrate your device. In most instances, spyware enters your device via an app install package, a malicious website, or a suspicious attachment.

  2. Monitors and captures your data. As soon as the spyware is active on your device, it monitors and records your data.

  3. Share data with third parties. The spyware shares all the recorded data with its creator.

In most cases, spyware monitors and records data such as:

  • Keystrokes.

  • Browsing history.

  • Login details such as usernames and passwords.

  • Credit card details.

  • Emails.

In short, spyware steals your personal, confidential information and then sends it to an attacker.

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How can you get spyware?

Spyware can infect your devices in a variety of ways. Usually, spyware needs to mask itself to find its way onto your device and operate. Here are a few common ways your systems may be infected with spyware.

  • Security vulnerabilities

    Bad actors can exploit security vulnerabilities to place spyware and other malware onto your devices. When we talk about security vulnerabilities, we usually refer to software vulnerabilities — traditionally, an unintentional side effect of manufacturing. Hackers are notorious for making security vulnerabilities work for them. They often use vulnerabilities to establish backdoors, providing access to your devices and loading them with spyware or other malicious software.

  • Phishing and spoofing

    Phishing and spoofing are often the preferred ways for hackers to spread spyware and other types of malware in general. Essentially, phishing and spoofing are the practice of sending out fraudulent emails, usually disguised as emails from legitimate sources, to trick users into clicking a malicious link or downloading dangerous attachments.

  • Misleading marketing

    Bad actors are infamous for the way they use marketing to their advantage. Often they will set up ad campaigns that promote their applications as helpful tools. Unfortunately, users looking to clean up their hard drives or speed up their devices may fall victim to misleading marketing tactics and install spyware without even realizing it.

  • Software bundles

    Bundleware, also known as software bundles, is a common way of spreading spyware. Spyware distributed using the bundleware method is usually prepacked with other applications, which often serve as a distraction.

Types of spyware

  • Banking Trojans

    A banking Trojan pretends to be a legitimate and harmless app or software. But once it gets onto your computer or smartphone, it starts its dirty job. Hackers can create a fake bank login page and intercept your details without you having the slightest idea.

  • Stalkerware

    Stalkerware is designed to steal GPS information, text messages, photos, contact information, browsing history, and call logs. There are plenty of easy-to-use apps that anybody with a minimum of technical knowledge can install easy-to-used apps on the victim's device, be it a jealous boyfriend, business partner, or employer.

  • Browser hijacker

    A browser hijacker changes your browser settings and bombards you with unwanted ads. It also spies on you in the background, collecting data about your online habits and selling it to marketers. Additionally, browser hijackers can redirect you to shady websites to trick you into downloading malware.

  • Keyboard loggers

    Keyloggers record keystrokes to monitor information such as your name, address, passwords, or financial details. Keyloggers are commonly used to monitor children's or employees' internet activities. Hackers love keyloggers as well, because they allow them to instantly get their hands on unsuspecting users’ login credentials.

  • Infostealers

    Infostealers can monitor everything you do on your computer, steal your documents, and review your browsing history. They get their job done and disappear without a trace.

  • Password stealers

    While similar in their functionality to infostealers, password stealers are malicious applications purpose-built to steal login information from the affected device. Password stealers are notorious for their ability to get passwords from web browsers and other locations.

How to know if you have spyware and the dangers associated with it

Spyware can wreak havoc if your devices have been infected. Just think of all the information on your desktop or mobile device and realize that all the data on an affected device is also available to bad actors. Now it's not that surprising that spyware could lead to identity theft or financial fraud.

Remember, spyware masks itself well and can be hard to notice. That said, we recommend looking out for the following signs:

  • You get more annoying pop-ups.

  • Your browser's homepage has changed, but you don't remember doing that.

  • Your device has become slower or crashes.

  • New icons appear on your screen.

  • You are redirected to websites you had no intention to visit.

How to remove spyware from your computer

To locate and remove spyware on macOS or Windows, follow these steps:

  • Disconnect from the internet so that spyware can't send any information to hackers.

  • Restart your device in safe mode. This will start the system without running third-party programs.

  • Check for any suspicious programs you don't remember installing and remove them.

How to remove spyware from your Android device

To locate and remove spyware on an Android device, follow these steps:

  • Hold down your phone's power button to see your power off and restart options.

  • Long-press the Power off option.

  • Select the Reboot to safe mode option and tap OK.

  • Once your device restarts, open up your Settings and select Apps.

  • Look for suspicious apps or ones you don't recognize.

  • Once you identify the malicious app, tap Uninstall to remove it from your device.

How to remove spyware from your iOS device

To locate and remove spyware on an iOS device, follow these steps:

  • Open your iOS device's home screen.

  • Sort through the apps and look for any that you do not recognize.

  • Delete any application that you did not install yourself.

If you cannot remove spyware from your iOS devices following the above steps, you may need to perform a factory reset. Remember, a factory reset means that all the data on your device will be removed permanently. Therefore, creating a backup before performing the reset is a good idea. To restore factory settings on your iOS device, please follow these steps:

  • Open Settings.

  • Locate and tap General.

  • Scroll down, and select Reset.

  • Tap Erase All Content and Settings.

  • Select Confirm.

The next step: level up your security

Once you have successfully removed spyware from your devices, you must take action to mitigate any other potential risks associated with spyware and to improve your overall security stance.

First, be sure to change all of your passwords. Most likely, the spyware on your devices was able to capture at least some of your login details. To quickly equip your favorite and most important online accounts with strong passwords, we recommend using our Password Generator, which can create complex and unique passwords on the spot.

Another critical step in recovering from a spyware attack is alerting your bank and other financial institutions that you've been affected. This way, you can limit potentially disastrous financial losses incurred by having spyware on your device.

How to prevent spyware

Spyware comes in many forms: an email attachment, a pop-up, or a link. If something looks shady, it probably is. Don't click on anything suspicious; if a website starts throwing pop-ups at you, leave immediately. You can add a pop-up blocker to your browser to minimize the risk.

Update your system on time

While it's tempting to postpone updates, we recommend against doing so. Developers continually improve security by fixing vulnerabilities and bugs hackers are looking for. If you're running an old version of an operating system, antivirus software, or a program, chances are that wrongdoers already know about its flaws and can use them against you.

Avoid downloading files from suspicious sources

Be careful when downloading files from the internet or using torrent services — you might end up downloading an unpleasant surprise. Hackers can attach spyware to the files, upload them as bait, and wait patiently for you to come around. The internet is flooded with free software that is a way to sneak spyware into your system.

Remember that “free“ is never “free“

Everybody loves free stuff, free software included. However, as the saying goes — there's no such a thing as free lunch. Sometimes, free software is a trial version of the real thing. Unfortunately, in other instances, free software may come prepacked with suspicious or even outright malicious apps. So be sure to always carefully read the terms and conditions of any app you are about to download and install on your device.

Use antivirus software

Computers, phones, and tablets come with built-in security features. However, if you want to boost your security, we recommend installing antivirus software and carefully monitoring your device's health.

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