What is Spyware & How Can You Protect Yourself
Spyware is malicious software that’s getting increasingly hard to spot. One of its main features is its ability to run without any obvious indication on the affected computer. This can make it hard to detect and remove spyware, and it also makes it easy for criminals to steal private information.
As social engineering tactics and cyberattacks grow more sophisticated spyware becomes harder to catch. To keep safe, you must learn how to protect your personal information online from spying eyes. So read on and learn everything you need to know about spyware in this article. We’ll cover: what it is, how it works, and how you can best protect yourself.
What is Spyware?
Spyware stands for spying software, and its main purpose is to collect data without your knowledge or consent. The spying software typically sells that data to third-party companies, such as data firms or advertisers, to increase their advertising revenue. Cybercriminals can also use it for identity theft, credit card fraud, and stealing photos from your computer.
Spyware collects data such as:
- Account information and passwords
- Credit card numbers and other banking information
- Web browsing history, bookmarks, and other internet data
- Location and IP address
- Messages, voice messages, phone calls, photos, and videos
Additionally, spyware significantly slows down your computer and can consume a lot of hard drive memory.
4 Main Types of Spyware
There are four main types of spyware that cybersecurity experts use to categorize the software. Learn about each below.:
- Adware: When users click on attention-grabbing pop-up ads, they can accidentally install malware that slows down their computers and spies on them. Today, many cookies come with adware that tracks you beyond the original website. Pop-ups are trying to invoke a sense of panic and fear, which can also be classified as scareware.
- Trojan horses: Trojans infiltrate operating systems by posing as legitimate software. Once downloaded, it can spy, modify, and steal your data. However, don’t mistake Trojan for a virus. Unlike computer viruses, spyware can’t multiply and infect other devices.
- Browser hijackers: This spyware will take control of your browser, changing the default browser and bookmarks and directing you to harmful websites.
- System monitors or key loggers: software programs that track what you type and therefore get access to your passwords, credit card information, and other sensitive personal information you might share online.
Below, we go over four spyware examples and explain what kind of information they harvest. Each is a different type of spyware: a browser hijacker, keylogger, Trojan, and adware. Additionally, we address what society has increasingly been wondering: is social media spying on us?
CoolWebSearch (CWS) is a browser hijacker that was released in 2003. It spies on your activity on Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and, most recently, Google Chrome. With over 40 variants, it’s constantly evolving.
Once installed, it takes control of your browser. That means it can create bookmarks and shortcuts and direct traffic to problematic and ad-infested websites. And not only does it harvest your personal information, but it can also dramatically slow down your computer.
HawkEye is a keylogger spyware example, tracking key logs, screenshots, passwords, videos, browsing history, and other personal information we share online. Unfortunately, it’s typically bundled together with free online software. When you download the free software, you’ll also fall victim to spying.
HawkEye made a comeback in early 2020 when it was distributed through a phishing email campaign about the COVID-19 pandemic. The email sender pretended to be WHO’s director general, prompting users to download an attachment. Once downloaded, HawkEye was free to watch the user’s every move. You can protect yourself against such spyware by learning what is phishing and how to protect yourself against it.
The Israeli technology company NSO Group developed Pegasus in 2011, but it was only discovered in 2016. Unlike other spyware examples on this list, this Trojan targets smartphones. Once installed, Pegasus gets access to everything on your phone, including your photos, messages, camera, and microphone.
While many other spyware types typically need the user to prompt a download, Pegasus can install itself without the user’s help. It only needs a vulnerability in the operating system or a downloaded app. For example, Pegasus can install itself with a missed phone call on WhatsApp. And what’s more – it deletes the call, so the user has no way of knowing they’re spied on.
But don’t despair just yet – NSO Group developed this Trojan spyware to help governments fight terrorism and not for mass surveillance. However, the unpleasant truth remains; we are losing control of our privacy. Theoretically, Pegasus could infiltrate millions of phones and people wouldn’t even notice it.
Gator is an adware developed by Gator Corporation (later renamed to Claria Corporation), a software/behavioral marketing company that closed its doors in 2008. It spied on users online and used the data to send them personalized ads. It took up a lot of space on people’s hard drives, slowing down the internet speeds and the performance of the computer.
Are Meta & TikTok Spyware Examples?
Twenty years later, harvesting user data for marketing purposes is the new normal. Websites, social media platforms, and private surveillance companies collect our data to target us with more relevant ads. Does that mean that Meta is spyware, just like Gator?
Facebook tracks our location, likes, comments, shares, and uploads. It also gets information about our off-Facebook activity. It’s not technically spyware because we agree to all of this in the Terms and Conditions. If you’d like to know which information Facebook has about you and remove it, head over to Privacy Settings and disconnect your off-Facebook activity.
TikTok, too, has come under fire because the platform collects an unsavory amount of user data, including biometrics, such as voice messages, fingerprints, and face scans. Additionally, research by Felix Krause, a software engineer, shows that TikTok can monitor all keyboard activity and taps. He claims this is the equivalent of installing a keylogger onto your phone. And as we’ve established above, keyloggers are types of spyware. So use it with caution!
Social Media and User Consent
Users consent to hand over all this data to social media companies in return for entertainment and a sense of connection. However, many users (especially underage) don’t understand the ramifications of sharing their data with tech giants. Don’t panic – social media platforms aren’t interested in your passwords and credit cards. But they’re far more interested in your behavior as a consumer. And if that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to revisit the list of your downloaded apps and social media accounts.
How Can You Protect Yourself Against Spyware?
Spyware is not the easiest type of cyberattack to find, otherwise, it wouldn’t be much of a spy. If you’ve noticed your computer or WiFi speeds slowed down significantly, you might have fallen victim to spyware or some other type of malware.
Follow these guidelines to protect yourself from spyware:
- Don’t click on pop-ups from sources you don’t trust. For example, many pop-ups pretend to be anti-virus programs. If you’re confronted with a pop-up, don’t click on it. Close it by pressing Control-Alt-Delete and close the window from there.
- Look into your Privacy & Security settings. Take time to understand how your data is processed by your browser, social media companies, and websites you visit. For example, check which information you share with Google and Facebook. Don’t blindly accept cookies on every website you visit or get an extension that rejects them for you.
- Get anti-spyware software that will detect spyware threats for you and prevent them from infecting your devices. Most trusted cybersecurity software solutions come with several other features, such as a firewall, privacy protection, and password manager.
- Read the Terms & Conditions. It doesn’t make for a thrilling read, but it’s a must if you want to understand what companies do with user information. Make sure to at least check that the software you’re using explains how they’re processing your data.
As you can see, the ever-so-stealthy spyware is hard to spot, but if you know how it works, you are much more likely to stay safe online.
Here’s a recap of what you should know about spyware and staying safe online:
- The definition of spyware (including the most common types and examples)
- What information spyware collects about you
- What social media platforms and other applications do with your personal information
- How to best protect yourself against spyware and other malicious software
Educating yourself on cybersecurity issues will help you stay vigilant against threats such as cybercrime and cyberterrorism. You can continue reading more about the most common cyber security threats on our blog section about online safety and security.
And now, the final takeaway.
As cyberattacks get more sophisticated, we believe that we should help each other stay safe online rather than leave every individual to fend for themselves. Internet service providers can do a lot to protect our communities against spyware, phishing, and other social engineering tactics. Therefore, our responsibility is no longer only to provide fast and reliable internet but also to ensure our subscribers stay safe while connected.
That’s why we recently launched Race CommandIQ, an app that helps our subscribers better understand their home networks. The app’s network security feature, ProtectIQ, has received a Global InfoSec Award for “Best in Anti-Phishing, Network Security, and Management.”
If you’d like to join our community of subscribers who enjoy fast, reliable, and safe internet, reach out to us at 877-722-3833 or send us an inquiry.