What is spyware?

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Spyware refers to any software that can be used to track or spy on your activity on a computer, mobile, tablet, or any other digital device.

Often, the term applies to malware that is installed on a computer with a malicious intent to watch a user's actions and replicate them in order to steal data or other information referring to a user. Whether it's the original hacker's intent or not, once a criminal has gained access via spyware, they are able to track anyone's actions on the computer - not just the owner's.

It's normally installed on a device without the user knowing and once it's running, it's often unlikely they'll be able to see anything different happening to their machine or mobile.

Using spyware, hackers can track keystrokes, the websites someone has visited, as well as usernames and passwords for those websites. Other sensitive information a user enters into fields, such as payment details, might also be tracked, with malicious actors aiming to breach accounts and carry out other fraudulent activities.

Performance issues

One of the reasons spyware can be such a problem is not only can it give criminals a way into your computer and the opportunity to steal data, but it can also significantly slow down a user's computer as it tracks everything you do.

Spyware can also be used to redirect web searches to questionable websites (used for phishing, for example), and change the settings of your computer, throttling bandwidth, memory and other processor tasks in the meantime.

"Legitimate" spyware

There are times when software that acts like spyware is installed for reasons that are not just criminal. Organisations may install tracking software on corporate-owned hardware to track an employee's browsing habits. Parents may also use similar software to spy on their kids' online activity.

Advertisers use cookies to track users in order to target advertising at them. However, if a user is notified that data is being collected on them, such actions may not be considered spyware (even if the data collected is the same).

Different types of spyware

Spyware can take many different forms, each having their own functions and purpose. The four main types are:

Adware this spyware tracks information about a user, sucking up data such as web searches, frequently visited websites and downloads. This information is then used to display window ads or pop-up ads.

Trojans this is malware that appears to be legitimate but can fool users into installing it onto their computers and mobile devices. These Trojans are used to access sensitive data and files and can affect system performance.

Cookie trackers third-party tracking cookies monitor a user's internet activities such as web searches, history, downloads, etc for business, marketing or other reasons, depending on the motives of the hacker.

System monitors and keyloggers this type of spyware is designed to monitor activity on a computer and record data such as keystrokes, sites visited, emails and more, often for nefarious purposes.

Dealing with spyware

If your device is infected with spyware you can take a number of different forms of action to remove it, but the first step you must take is taking your machine offline. This isn't an overreaction at all, rather, it prevents the spyware spreading across the network and prevents the leakage of sensitive data held in local storage. Moreover, any communication between an infected device and the outside world means data cannot be beamed away.

The next step is to restart your PC and booting into Safe Mode, so that processes and programmes are restricted and only the essentials are needed for the system to run.

This can allow you to address any pitfalls and delete temporary files to speed up the scanning process. Disk Cleanup is one such tool that Windows can use to remove any unnecessary files that slow down this process.

You'll need to deploy anti-spyware software at this stage to remove any malware that's infected your machine, which may even require an internet connection if you haven't yet had the chance to download software. To avoid this, however, you can download anti-spyware software onto an alternative device and access this through external storage.

Using the anti-spyware software you can scan for any infections you suspect your machine might be harbouring, with most apps giving you the best chance to eliminate the infections and with it any chances that cyber criminals will siphon away sensitive data.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet
Features Editor

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.