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What Is Spyware and Its Examples?

If you look closely, you will observe that the advertisements are targeted and fabricated for you. If you are looking for a good pair of boxing gloves, you’ll see boxing gloves everywhere, including your social media advertisements, shopping apps, and even your newsfeed ads. This is a typical example of adware. Your search and your tastes are sold to the advertiser to show tailormade pop-ups for you.

  • NSO Group Spyware: This first item on our list of spyware examples demonstrates when spyware has a more sinister face. The Guardian reported WhatsApp accused the NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company, of hacking its 1,400 users. The user’s list includes journalists, human rights activists, diplomatic officials, and even a Catholic priest in Togo. They were being targeted because of their activism against the government of Togo.
  • Android Spyware: In January 2021, spyware targeting Android users Trojanised versions of several legitimate apps were marketed as legitimate applications. The developers of the legitimate apps were not even aware that their malicious versions existed. These malicious apps collected data from victims’ devices. The information collected was transmitted to many command-and-control servers. 
  • Android malware masquerades as a fraudulent system update: In March 2021, Android malware was found bundled in a phony system update. Users who installed this imposter system update downloaded the malware from outside the Google Play Store. Once installed, this malware will collect the data from the victims’ devices. This spyware could:
  • Steal users’ messages, contact details, and search histories,
  • Use the device’s camera to take photos,
  • Steal device specifications and search histories, and
  • Record calls and sounds using the infected devices’ microphones.
  • Software supply-chain spyware attack: In February 2021, cybersecurity researchers discovered a new supply chain attack targeting online gamers via the Android emulator NoxPlayer. Cybercriminals used the platform’s update mechanism to deploy three malicious payloads onto unsuspecting users’ devices. NoxPlayer has more than 150 million users in 150 countries globally, so this is a large pool of potential targets.

Moreover, other types of spyware use the camera of your phone, your laptop, or any other device to spy on you. The microphone of your mobile devices is also used to spy on you. Bloomberg reported that Facebook was watching Instagram users through their cameras. This allegation can cause a stir among millions of Instagram users if proved.

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What is Spyware?

Spyware is malicious software that infects computers and other internet-connected devices and secretly records your browsing habits, the websites you visit, and your online purchases. Some types of spyware also record your passwords, login credentials, and credit card details. This information is then forwarded to the spyware author, who can either use it for their gain or sell it to a third party.

Like all other types of malicious software, spyware is installed on your computer without your consent. It is usually bundled with legitimate software you have intentionally downloaded (like file-sharing programs and other freeware or shareware applications). Still, you can also unwittingly download it by visiting malicious websites or clicking on links and attachments in infected emails. Spyware will attach itself to your operating system and start running quietly in the background as soon as you install it.

The term spyware was coined in the mid-1990s, but the software itself had existed long before that. At first, developers would add a spyware component to their programs to track their usage. They would then approach potential advertisers with these stats or utilise them to detect any unlicensed use of the software. By the early noughties, however, more than 90 per cent of computer users worldwide had their machines infected with some form of spyware, unknowingly installed without their permission.

Nowadays, there are many spyware programs in circulation, some even bundled with hardware. Rather than targeting individual users, spyware creators aim to gather as much data as possible and sell it to advertisers, spammers, scammers, or hackers. With new forms of malicious software being released every few seconds, no one is safe from spyware. Even the companies you trust use spyware to track your behaviour, which you had allowed them to do when you accepted their End User License Agreement.

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What Does Spyware Do?

Before we dive deeper, you’ll want to understand “what does spyware do on your computer?”

All spyware peeks into your data and all your computer activity — whether authorised or not. However, many trusted computer services and applications use “spyware-like” tracking tools. As such, the spyware definition is reserved mainly for malicious applications nowadays.

Malicious spyware is a type of malware installed explicitly without your informed consent. Step-by-step, spyware will take the following actions on your computer or mobile device:

  1. Infiltrate — via an app install package, malicious website, or file attachment.
  2. Monitor and capture data — via keystrokes, screen captures, and other tracking codes.
  3. Send stolen data — to the spyware author to be used directly or sold to other parties.

In short, spyware communicates personal, confidential information about you to an attacker.

The information gathered might be reported about your online browsing habits or purchases, but spyware code can also be modified to record specific activities.

Data compromised by spyware often includes collecting confidential info such as:

  • Login credentials — passwords and usernames
  • Account PINs
  • Credit card numbers
  • Monitored keyboard strokes
  • Tracked browsing habits
  • Harvested email addresses

The methods by which spyware gets onto your computer and mobile devices can vary. Check out Security Systems’ range of high-end Melbourne home security for your home protection needs.

How Spyware Infects Your Devices

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Malicious spyware needs to mask itself carefully to install and operate unnoticed. Therefore, its methods of infection are usually obscured within seemingly regular downloads or websites. This malware may be in or alongside legitimate programs and websites via vulnerability exploits or custom-designed fraudulent apps and sites.

Bundleware, or bundled software packages, are a standard delivery method for spyware. In this case, the software attaches itself to some other program you intentionally download and install.

Some bundled spyware installs discreetly without warning. Other times, your desired software will describe and require the spyware in the license agreement — without using that term. Thus, you are voluntarily and unknowingly infecting yourself by forcing you to agree to the entire software bundle to install the desired program.

Alternatively, spyware can get into a computer through all the avenues that other malware takes, such as when the user visits a compromised website or opens a malicious attachment in an email.

Examples of Problems Caused by Spyware

Spyware can be incredibly dangerous if you’ve been infected. Threats can range from mild inconveniences to long-term financial damage. Among these problems, below are some of the most common:

Data Theft and Identity Fraud

First, and perhaps most importantly, spyware can steal personal information used for identity theft. If malicious software has access to every piece of information on your computer, it can harvest more than enough information to imitate your identity. Data used for this purpose includes browsing history, email accounts, and saved passwords for online banking, shopping, and social networks. Also, if you’ve visited online banking sites, spyware can siphon your bank account information or credit card accounts and sell it to third parties — or use them directly.

Computer Damages

More commonly, you will face the damage spyware can do to your computer. Spyware can be poorly designed, leading to system-draining performance. The lack of performance optimisation can take up an enormous amount of your computer’s memory, processing power, and internet bandwidth. As a result, infected devices may run slowly and lag in between applications or while online. Worse cases include frequent system crashes or overheating your computer, causing permanent damage. Some spyware can even disable your internet security programs.

Disruptions to Your Browsing Experience

Spyware can also manipulate search engine results and deliver unwanted websites in your browser, leading to potentially harmful or fraudulent websites. It can also cause your homepage to change and can even alter some of your computer’s settings. Pop-up advertisements are an equally frustrating issue that accompanies some types of spyware. Advertisements may appear even when offline, leading to inescapable annoyances.

Spyware Types

All forms of spyware can be divided into the following five categories:

Info stealers

As the name suggests, info stealers are programs that can scan infected computers and steal various personal information. This information can include browsing histories, usernames, passwords, email addresses, personal documents, and media files. Depending on the program, info stealers store the data they collect either on a remote server or locally for later retrieval.

In most cases, info stealers exploit browser-related security deficiencies to collect your private data. They sometimes also use the so-called injection scripts to add extra fields to web forms. Then, when you type in the requested information and hit “Submit”, instead of going to the website owner, the data will go directly to the hacker, who can then potentially use it to impersonate you on the internet.

Password Stealers

Password stealers are very similar to info stealers, the only difference being that they are specially designed to steal login credentials from infected devices. First detected in 2012, these pieces of spyware don’t steal your passwords as you type them. Instead, they attach themselves to the browser to extract all your saved usernames and passwords. In addition, they can also record your system login credentials.

The reliable security software routinely removes most password stealers, but some types still manage to avoid detection by changing their file hashes before each attack. As with info stealers, the creators of password stealers can choose whether they want to store the collected data on a remote server or in a hidden file on your hard drive.

Keyloggers

Sometimes referred to as system monitors, keyloggers are spyware programs that record the keystrokes typed on a keyboard connected to an infected computer. While hardware-based keyloggers record each keystroke in real-time, software-based keystroke loggers collect periodic screenshots of the currently active windows. This, in turn, allows them to record passwords (if they are not encrypted on-screen), credit card details, search histories, email and social media messages, as well as browser histories.

While hackers mainly use keyloggers to gather sensitive data from unsuspecting victims, they have also found more practical use in recent years. Namely, some business owners utilise them to monitor the activity of their employees, while concerned parents may install them on their children’s computers to ensure that they are safe online. Some law enforcement agencies have also used keyloggers to arrest notorious criminals and crack down on drug dealers.

Banker Trojans

Banker Trojans are programs designed to access and record sensitive information stored on or processed through online banking systems. Often disguised as legitimate software, banker Trojans can modify web pages on online banking sites, alter the values of transactions, and even add extra transactions to benefit the hackers behind them. Like all other types of spyware, banker Trojans are built with a backdoor, allowing them to send all the data they collect to a remote server.

These programs usually target financial institutions ranging from banks and brokerages to online financial services and electronic wallet providers. Due to their sophisticated design, banking Trojans are often undetected even by the state-of-the-art security systems of some financial institutions.

Modem Hijackers

With the gradual shift from dial-up to broadband in the last decade, modem hijackers have become a thing of the past. They are perhaps the oldest type of spyware that would attack its victims while browsing the internet. As a rule, a pop-up ad would appear, prompting the user to click on it. When they did, it would initiate a silent download of a file that would then take control of their dial-up modem.

Once in charge of the computer, the modem hijacker would disconnect the phone line from its current local connection and instead connect it to an international one. Most hackers would use premium-priced phone numbers (usually intended for adult chat lines) registered in countries with insufficient cybercrime legislation and some South American countries. The victims would usually only become aware of the problem when they saw their $1,000+ phone bill early next month.

How to Prevent Spyware

What can you do to protect your business’s devices and data from spyware with all of this in mind? Here are a few quick tips you can implement right away:

  • Use suitable devices and network security tools to protect your IT systems. Having a good firewall and strong antivirus or anti-malware tools can go a long way in helping to secure your business against many types of malware, including spyware.
  • Download apps, games, and software from legitimate sources: It is a colossal mistake to download them from shady sources. Just use official stores like Google Play Store and Apple App Store. Third-party stores and file-sharing sites are often home to different kinds of malware. Although you’ll typically pay a higher price for official software, it’s one way to keep your devices and network more secure.
  • Check the code signing certificate of software before downloading: Software developers and manufacturers use code signing certificates to assure users that their software is legitimate and that its code hasn’t been changed since it was signed. You should always check this certificate before downloading software onto your desktop or laptop devices.
  • Ensure your software, hardware, and other IT systems are patched and up-to-date. Running outdated or unpatched software or technologies is a huge no-no. Updates and patches are a way for companies to fix vulnerabilities and bugs — and not applying those updates leaves your device and network as a whole at risk.
  • Help your employees become “cyber-savvy” through awareness training. When it comes to your organisation’s cybersecurity, your employees can be either your most significant asset or vulnerability. The answer often depends on their level of cyber awareness. Employees who can recognize threats and cyber risks can help keep your data and IT systems out of reach of cybercriminals.

How to Remove Spyware

Similar to some other types of malware, you will usually be able to recognize some symptoms of a spyware infection on your computer. These can range from changes to your web browser’s homepage and redirected searches to performance issues and increased modem activity when you’re not using your computer. If you notice any of these problems, you should use the best antivirus software to run a scan of your computer and quarantine or remove any infected or compromised files it detects.

As with any other cybersecurity threat, nurturing good browsing habits is the best way to keep your computer and personal information safe. Because spyware is most often distributed via malicious emails and websites, you shouldn’t open attachments or click on any links included in suspicious emails or messages you receive on social media. Some programs allow you to opt-out of installing bundled spyware, so make sure to read the instructions carefully when installing software on your PC.

Finally, even if your computer shows no signs of spyware infection, you should still scan it for all potential threats at least once a week. With the best antivirus software, you can schedule a weekly scan so that you won’t have to start it every time manually. These programs also offer real-time protection against a wide range of threats, from viruses and worms to spyware and ransomware. What’s more, they automatically check for virus and malware database updates every day to ensure optimal protection.

Sources

  • BBC
  • Checkpoint
  • G Data
  • Google
  • Inverse
  • Investopedia
  • Kaspersky
  • Malwarebytes (1)
  • Malwarebytes (2)
  • McAfee
  • PC World
  • Softpedia
  • Tech Target (1)
  • Tech Target (2)
  • Wikipedia

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