A Spyware Primer

Spyware is annoying, intrusive, and sometimes offensive. According to Webopedia, spyware "covertly gathers user information through the user's Internet connection without his or her knowledge, usually for advertising purposes." The good news is, you can protect yourself.

What are the Effects of Spyware?

Like its name suggests, spyware spies on you. Spyware monitors your Internet connection, tracking the websites you visit and other things you do online. As it gathers information about you, it sends the data back to its creators.

Spyware is often responsible for sluggish computer performance, especially when you're online. It eats up your Internet connection and your computer's processing power as it greedily records your activities and transmits them back to its makers. If you get enough spyware, it can degrade your computer's performance to the point of making it unusable.

Spyware is often the source of pop-up advertisements, which can be annoying and offensive. It can also interfere with web browsing by redirecting you from one site to another, or by preventing you from visiting certain websites at all. It may install "searchbars" or "hotbars" onto your web browser that cause problems or create pop-ups.

How Does Spyware Get Installed?

There are several ways you can get spyware on your computer.

  • Piggyback - Sometimes when you install an application, spyware is installed too. This might be because the software vendor has made a deal with the spyware vendor. In cases like this, the installer may ask if you want to install the second application (i.e. the spyware). Unless you recognize it for what it is, you may unwittingly install it to your computer.
  • Web Page - Spyware can get installed to your computer when you visit a web page. Some web pages might exploit vulnerabilities in your web browser (usually Internet Explorer) to install spyware on your computer without you even knowing about it. Other web pages might prompt you to install something when you visit the page and unless you realize what you're being asked, you may unwittingly install the spyware.
  • Security Disguise - Some of the "security" (anti-spyware or anti-virus) software available on the Internet is actually spyware in disguise. Like a wolf in sheep's clothing, this spyware is disguised to look like a remedy to your problem. By installing these fake "anti-spyware" or "anti-virus" programs, you are actually installing spyware onto your computer.
     Visit the Software Catalog to install programs to protect your computer.
  • Cool Disguise - Some "cool" programs you install are actually spyware. Cute programs that supposedly "enhance" your web browser or alter your system's appearance may actually be spyware. Like the story of the Trojan Horse, this spyware entices you to install it by making you want it. Once the spyware is on your system, its negative effects far outweigh any supposed benefits.
  • Virus - Occasionally, a virus may be designed to install spyware as part of its payload. When your computer gets infected with a virus like this, it may download and install spyware onto your computer. This method of spyware installation is less common than the others.
  • Mobile App - Kaspersky Lab reports 5,000 new mobile trojans weekly, coming in the form of "spyware and aggressive adware embedded in freely available mobile apps." One example is a tip calculator app that sent incoming/outgoing SMS to a designated email address

Is Spyware the Same as a Virus?

No (although spyware may occasionally get installed by a virus). Unlike viruses, spyware does not spread by jumping from computer to computer. Also, spyware does not infect or delete files on your computer. Anti-virus programs generally do not find or remove spyware.

Because spyware may not be immediately obvious as the cause of computer problems, you might be tempted to think your computer has a virus when, in fact, spyware is responsible. Spyware can also be difficult to remove, a characteristic that makes it similar to some viruses.

How Can a Computer be Protected?

You can protect against spyware with a "1-2-3" strategy, using a combination of anti-spyware software, critical system updates, and common sense.

1. Anti-spyware software is important

If you think you might have spyware on your computer, you should run anti-spyware to find and remove it. Anti-spyware programs work a lot like anti-virus programs. They allow you to scan your computer for spyware that might be installed on your computer. The anti-spyware program typically displays a list of spyware it's found and gives you the opportunity to remove it.

Anti-spyware can also be proactive. Windows Forefront Endpoint Protection provides real-time protection, alerting you when spyware or potentially unwanted software attempts to install itself or run on your computer, or when programs attempt to change important Windows settings. Similarly, Spybot - Search & Destroy includes the function TeaTimer, which can detect and counteract to threats and unsolicited system settings changes.

2. Install critical system updates

If your computer alerts you to the availability of new critical system updates, you should install them – don't ignore them. Spyware can exploit your web browser's vulnerabilities. By installing critical system updates, you patch the holes in your web browser (and operating system) that can be used by spyware. This is key to protecting your computer against Internet threats like spyware.

Windows computers can get critical system updates from Microsoft's Safety & Security Center. You must use Internet Explorer to obtain updates in this way. Mac computers can get critical system updates from Apple's Security Updates website.

3. Use common sense – think before you click

Like phishing scammers and identity thieves, spyware often relies on the human element. For example, if you pay attention when installing applications onto your computer, you may have the option to uncheck the installation of additional software (i.e. what may be spyware piggybacking onto your computer). However, you may be too excited about the new program or widgit you're about to get to pay attention to all the options and fine print. It's easier just to click on OK.

When you get "security" warnings or when you're asked to install something from a web page, stop and ask yourself if you really want to install software from this website. Do you trust the site? Do you know what the software is or does?

When you use your computer, be aware of potential dangers and think before you click. Protect yourself before you connect yourself. By taking a cautious approach to the Internet, you will be doing a lot to protect your computer.