What is Spyware?

The general and very simple definition of spyware can close in a literal translation: spyware act like movie secret agent, but instead of breaking into buildings and mounting wiretaps, they break into your computer or mobile equipment. In other words spyware is one of types of malware.

Spyware captures information about your activity, retrieves data from your drive, steals your files, login information, your bank account information and credit cards, and monitors all your activities.

Spyware can effectively annoy the use of the device – it can install additional applications and redirect web addresses. Some types of spyware can significantly slow down your hardware and network connection by changing your software and web browser settings. 

How does spyware work?

The way spyware work is most easily explained by the example of the Windows operating system. There are many sections (branches) in the Windows registry (that is, a configuration database) that contain information about user profiles, installed applications, folder properties, icons, hardware information, and ports used. In turn, the branch is divided into keys, subkeys, and values in the registry with a set of supporting files. Modification of key values by spyware allows spyware to start automatically when the system starts. This is the first wicket that allows spyware to escape from programs trying to remove them.

Spyware usually connects to any location in the registry that allows it to work. Spyware is clever enough to periodically check to see if any of the links have been broken. If it finds a “hole”, and automatically fills it. That’s why it’s so hard to fight spyware – even if some or even most of the connections are removed, it will still start when the operating system starts.

Spyware takes full advantage of users’ ignorance and often inadrelevance assumptions of operating system developers and add-ons. Many spyware programs exploit vulnerabilities in browsers, the system, and exploits (vulnerabilities) in JavaScript to gain access to data without user consent and knowledge.

Types of Spyware

Spyware has evolved over the years, and it’s all been and is closely related to the constant development of technology. If they serve harmful purposes, usually their presence is hidden and difficult to capture. Spyware can be divided into 4 main groups: adware (advertising software), cookies (you often agree to them, right? :)), Trojans and monitoring systems. We can add a few other types to these groups. Most – described in a nutshell – can be found in this list:

Adware

Have you seen pop-up ads? Yes, these are pop-up and annoying ads. Spyware can use them for its purposes and instead of the desired redirect, it sends the user to a completely different and dangerous place on the network. Read more about adware

Keyloggers

These are keyboard monitoring programs. They are often used in corporations or public places and are installed intentionally by the device owner – precisely to track user activity. That’s why your boss knows what you’re doing on your work computer :)

Trojans

For instance, in banking companies – take over logins and login passwords for banking systems, taking advantage of various security vulnerabilities. They’re invisible, and that’s how they work. They can change the content of transactions and websites imperceptially and even generate additional transfers. They are used not only for attacks on ordinary users, but also for institutional ones – banks, financial portals, etc. Read more about traojans

Password thieves

They pull passwords for everything that passwords require. They are also looted by logins and other confidential information. In this way, the software accesses system logins, accounts on various portals, emails, etc. The collected information may be stored on an infected device or uploaded to a remote server. This type of spyware can also force your device to take malicious actions and send spam.

Web beacons

Otherwise known as single-pixel gifs or electronic images. They are usually sent in emails and allow you to track messages. They tell the hacker if the message has been opened and whether there has been any interaction with the contents of the email. They can also monitor user activity on the Page, especially for analytics purposes. Initially, web beacons were mainly used by advertisers and research companies, but over time social networking sites began to use them. An example is buttons (buttons), which, acting as a web beacon, retrieve information about the activity taken.

Infostealers

They monitor user activity and search for various information. They can take screenshots, collect keyboard information, steal files, capture online activity – including emails, chats, browsing history, and online banking.

Rootkits

They secretly infect the device, allowing the hacker to install tools to gain permanent and remote access to the user’s hardware. They are very difficult to detect because they basic ally “run away” from antivirus scanners. They work as if someone has installed hidden doors in your house that allow you to explore “around the house” with impunity and remove or install various components.

Cookies

Cookies are a “friendlier” form of spyware – they are not bad in themselves and usually as a user you agree to them, being aware of their existence. These files are downloaded from the website and saved on the device, which allows the website you are visiting to function properly. Cookies can remember your preferences to match, for example, the personalization of advertisements. Most websites use cookies for your convenience – thanks to them, the products added to the shopping cart do not disappear and the site does not log you out every few minutes. Cookies may by design only be used for certain functions and should be encrypted and inaccessible to third parties. We reflexively agree to cookies when visiting websites, but let us not deceive ourself – few people check the privacy policy and the scope and purpose of data collection by websites. Hackers see this as a gateway to capturing data, tracking activity, and gaining unauthorized access to the device.

Spyware, thanks to the use of social networks and various analytical companies, ceased to have only bad, espionage significance. Websites use spyware legally to create default settings for providing services based on spyware.

How can you get infected with spyware?

The virus in real life is invisible – you don’t even know when you’re in contact with it unless someone is clearly sneezing at you. The same applies to computer viruses such as spyware – they can appear on your computer along with another program or file downloaded from the Internet (it is mainly free files with movies or music or attachments from emails). In most cases, you won’t even realize that the spy program has spread on your computer. There are several main ways spyware appears on your device:

Free software packages

Why pay for the program when you can have it for free? Such free solutions are very tempting, but they carry a lot of risk. A seemingly useful program can be packed with malicious extensions, plugins and add-ons that look like ordinary components of the application. It is worth knowing that even uninstalling the “free” program will not remove spyware

Free tools

Hackers like and often use the way to reach their victims’ devices with seemingly useful tools. They place spyware in various solutions that are interesting from the user’s point of view, e.g. internet accelerators, hard disk cleaners or download managers. Being tempted to do so “opportunity” can result in spyware being downloaded. As with free programs, even uninstalling will not allow you to get rid of malware.

Vulnerabilities

One bad click can easily and quickly bring spyware to your device. You have the right not to know about the vulnerabilities and all you can do is regularly update installed programs and be wary of unknown websites and attachments in emails. Yes, even transferring files between friends can be risky. Spyware download can also be triggered by the very display of an ad or a malicious website.

Malicious applications for mobile devices

The increase in the popularity of mobile devices has led to the development of spyware dedicated specifically for them. Often these are legitimate applications, connected to malicious code or links to download infected components. Sometimes it is a specially created software called, which pretends to be another, seemingly useful program. This form of spyware is most used by blackmailers and stalkers.

How do I recognize spyware on my computer?

It is very difficult to discover that spyware has appeared on your computer. Some of them perfectly mask themselves against detection by antivirus programs, disabling firewalls and changing browser settings. Some even detect the presence of another spyware and throw it away from the computer themselves so that the malicious activity is not detected too quickly.

However, spyware usually doesn’t work on its own – it comes along with other malware. Therefore, the most recognizable symptoms of infection will be decreased performance and speed of the computer, above-average CPU activity, hang or sudden launch of unwanted applications, websites and advertisements with questionable content, and even general system failure and problems starting the computer.

The biggest problem in the diagnosis of spyware is the lack of unambiguous symptoms. Users often dump strange system behavior on a device defect or attribute it to other types of viruses. Some people contact technical support to report a slowdown in the system, and some believe it is the result of equipment wear and… buys a new computer. It often turns out that only completely clearing the disks and reinstalling the entire system can restore the computer to proper functioning.

Can a Mac also be exposed to spyware?

As the popularity of the Mac system increases, the interest of cyber criminals in the resources collected by users of apple hardware has increased. Spyware – especially since 2017 – is gaining an increasing share of the overall number of attacks on your Mac system. Usually, the way of infection and symptoms are similar to those known from Windows systems. However, for Macs, hackers mainly use password thieves, or through backdoors (vulnerabilities) extort passwords, take screen screenshots, intercept and transfer files, or record keystrokes on the keyboard.
But that’s not the end of it – there’s also legitimate spyware on your Mac that virtually any user can buy and download. This is how apps that offer the ability to monitor children – that is, popular parental controls – or monitor employees work. It is enough to use them for slightly different purposes than their original premise, thus creating professional spy tools. And without too much knowledge related to hacking activities.

Mobile devices and spyware

As with Macs, the rise in the popularity of mobile devices has expanded the use of spyware. Spyware works very widely here – from stealing text messages, call lists, contacts, photos, to emails and the history of browsers used. In addition, spyware on your smartphone can use its microphone, camera, keyboard (even this touch!) and GPS transmitter. The software runs in the background – without creating any icons and shortcuts – most often by sending the acquired information by e-mail or by sending it to a remote server.

Hackers attack both ordinary consumers and large corporations that use smartphones and tablets at work. Even a thriving IT team may have trouble detecting spyware on mobile devices. And how do hackers get into mobile devices?

Malicious applications

Most often pretending to be legitimate software. The only way to avoid the threat on their part is to use proven sources of downloading applications and carefully read warnings informing them that they have consented to access e.g. to the camera, email or other personal data.

Free Wi-Fi

Hackers can monitor all your activity during a call by connecting to an unsecured network in public places. It is best not to use such networks if it is not necessary.

Operating system errors and vulnerabilities

To avoid attacks by vulnerabilities in the system, you should update the software as soon as a new update appears.

How do I remove spyware?

Despite all the cunning and cunning of spyware, there are ways to avoid infection, as well as to remove malware from your device. Special programs called antispyware have been created that remove and/or block spyware from accessing your computer and mobile devices. However, it has long been known that prevention is better than cure, so the most important and effective way to avoid infection is to use good internet usage practices and proven, effective anti-viruses.

Removing spyware is not that easy. When there are a large number of such intruders on the device, the last resort may be to back up the data and reinstall the system – preceded by a complete clean-up of the disks. Some programs may not be able to completely remove the threat.

How to prevent spyware?

It’s often enough to take care of your current web browser and update your system and security as soon as they appear. Also, check your browser’s privacy and security settings, which is best if you set them to a higher level. Of course, beware of pop-ups, avoid clicking on suspicious links, and don’t open emails from unfamilial senders. Try downloading files only from verified sites, and before downloading them, hover over the link with your mouse cursor and see if they redirect to a really secure site. These good practices are worth combining with a good anti-virus program with an antispyware module.

What is the difference between spyware and antispyware?

While spyware tries to hijack your private data and monitor your activity, antispyware programs effectively prevent it from doing so. Antispyware can not only protect against the harmful effects of spyware, but also detect and remove them from the system. The question then arises: is the antispyware program the same as the antivirus?

Antispyware software initially existed as a separate application – after all, it combated malware. Anti-viruses focus on other types of malicious programs – viruses. It has been assumed, however, that we call antivirus everything that fights against any form of malware. Therefore, antispyware is often included in popular anti-virus programs e.g. Bitdefender Antivirus To make sure that installing an antivirus will protect you from spyware attack, check if the antivirus you have chosen has antispyware features that work in real time. Unfortunately, many antivirus programs, especially the most basic versions of them, do not have such a module.

How does antispyware software work?

Good security practices may not be enough, so antispyware software will work as the “head of protection” of your privacy. Its presence will allow you to capture spyware that may already be guests on your device, as well as prevent the possibility of installing more spyware.

Antispyware blocks access to the microphone and camera, encrypts keystrokes on the keyboard and private files, and even scans the Dark Web (the dark side of the web accessed through dedicated software) to verify that personal data has not been stolen in any way.

Antispyware programs can work in two ways:

  1. Acting in real time, that is, like antivirus programs.
  2. Used only to detect and remove spyware – the one already on your device.

The first way to act (in real time) scans files downloaded to disk on an ongoing basis and blocks components recognized as carriers of spyware. Sometimes antispyware can block attempts to modify your browser settings and thwart the hidden installation of spyware startup items on your device.

The second way of working (used only for detecting and removing spyware) was the prototype of antispyware programs – today we are moving away from this model, acting more comprehensively.

Keep in mind that if you have an antispyware or anti-virus program with such a module, you need to keep their database up to date or use cloud-based software – only the current antispyware program is able to catch the latest and ever-evolving threats.

It often happens that spyware, discovering the removal of its fragment from the registry keys, immediately replenishes it. This definitely makes it difficult to fight this malware. However, by starting your computer in safe mode, you increase the chances of the antispyware program effectively and permanently removing spyware.

The second way of working (used only for detecting and removing spyware) was the prototype of antispyware programs – today we are moving away from this model, acting more comprehensively.

What program best removes spyware?

Spyware removal program is the key to recovering and maintaining safe hardware. There are a lot of solutions – both free and paid. But will a free spyware removal program be a better option than the proposals of antivirus giants?

By typing “free antispyware” into the search engine you will find, among others, free Cleaner Spyware, Spyware Terminator and, for example, Spyware Doctor. However, by downloading them from the internet, you will never be sure what you are really downloading. Perhaps it’s another virus, or worse, a spy program masquerading as your own liquidator? Hackers can be merciless in this regard – and you won’t even realize that someone is stealing your data.

Many tests have been conducted, several anti-virus programs with built-in antispyware extension gained 100% effectiveness in combating spyware. The best results were made by the well-known and well-liked Bitdefender which is also excellent at protecting online banking.

The best of such end-to-end solutions is their effective operation not only for spyware, but also for all other threats to which your computer equipment and mobile devices are exposed. By choosing proven solutions from reputable and market-recognized companies, you can be sure that your identity and your files gain maximum protection and the highest possible degree of security.

The history of spyware, or where did spyware come from?

Let’s start from the beginning:

  • 16.10.1995 – the first use of the term “spyware” in a post on Usenet, which mocked Microsoft’s business model
  • 12.1996 – the word “spyware” was used publicly, on a much larger scale – was included in an industry article.
  • 1999 – the definition of spyware appeared in the press.
  • 06.2000 – the first application to detect and fight spyware has appeared. Then the word “spyware” was used by the owner of ZoneLabs, the manufacturer of ZoneAlarm antivirus software.

In general, the year 2000 changed the perception of spyware, and all this by the well-known company Mattel (manufacturer of, among other things, Barbie dolls). It has released educational software for children called “Reader Rabbit”. One parent was notified by ZoneAlarm that Mattel’s software was sending data from his computer back to the company. Since  then,  the  definition of  spyware  has  now adopted a well-known  form..

  • 10,2004 – The first spyware study was conducted by AOL (America Online) and the National Cyber-Security Alliance. It turned out that 80% of the computers of all internet users were infected by spyware, and 89% of people had no idea about the existence of this software. To make matters worse, 95% of users said they never consented to their installation.
  • 2005 – further tests and subsequent results – 61% of the computers tested were infected, 92% of users knew nothing about the presence of the software, and 91% confirmed that they did not agree to install spyware.
  • 2006 – Spyware spying became so popular that it became the biggest security threat to Computers running Windows and Internet Explorer. And not because it was the most popular browser in those days. The reason was the integration of IE with Windows, which allowed to retrieve data from the most important areas of the operating system.
  • 07.03.2011 – A CBS/CNet News report released an analysis of the Wall Street Journal, which revealed user tracking practices through Facebook, among others. There would be nothing wrong with this if it were not for the fact that the site collects information about user activity also outside of Facebook.
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