What is spyware?
Spyware is a type of malware (malicious software) that installs on computers and phones with the intention of collecting information. Typically, the installation is unintentional on the part of the user and unknown to the network. Many spyware programs quietly upload the data they collect without the user’s knowledge or consent.
If you live in America, then your internet service provider may be performing the same function as malicious spyware. They may legally sell your online behavior to marketers, tune your search results and insert ads. Spyware has myriad purposes. Adware programs (the most common type of spyware) produce pop-up ads or replace ad banners; key-loggers may capture passwords or banking information; “stealware” hijack affiliate links and redirect funds. Some programs are fairly harmless by comparison, simply tracking web page visits, others record almost everything. Spyware is not restricted to your PC, for example, Pegasus installs on Apple’s iOS and has been found tracking messages, calls and passwords on iPhones. Google identified software on Google Play that, once installed, can record calls and sounds, take screenshots and photos, grab email data, and more. New products on the market are intentionally installed, such as by parents monitoring their children.
How did it get on my system?
Spyware is not usually self-reproducing, like a virus. Some hackers infect systems by taking advantage of security holes in internet browsers, operating systems or other software. Often it comes packaged alongside genuine software. Like viruses, however, they may arrive in your email inbox just waiting for you to open that attachment.
How do I know that I have been infected?
Changes to the default browser, or the appearance of pop up ads are a clear indication you are hosting spyware. It may be that the system performance changes, slowdown is a common issue, or an increase in CPU usage or disk usage may be an indicator of infection. In the extreme cases, complete system crash or network failure may result. Sometimes users will remain oblivious to infection. The more advanced programs may even clean the system of other spyware to attempt to reduce the likelihood of alerting the user of infection, others may compromise security settings making further infection more likely.
How do I retain my privacy?
There are some small, simple changes that even the non-technical user can make to preserve some privacy. Installing a secure browser such as Opera is a good start. Opera provides you with a VPN (virtual private network), an ad blocker and it can be configured to use HTTPS, to encrypt your data. It configures to hide your location, in that the VPN can be set to a different country, which gives you access to search results filtered for a different physical location.
Malicious spyware is designed to be hidden from the system user and detection may be challenging. Prevention is always better than cure: using firewalls and customized hosts files may prevent the system from connecting to known malicious sites. A very conservative attitude is required when choosing shareware programs. Downloading paid-for software from reputable sources is the safest option. The anti-spyware market has grown, with many anti-virus packages now including software to clean or block spyware and are also available for smartphones. Remember that, due to the arms-race between the malicious coders and their opposition, it is important to update your anti-spyware measures regularly. In extreme cases, it may be necessary to delete registry entries manually, which requires some technical know-how. A complete backup of user files and a reinstall of the operating system is sometimes the fastest and cleanest solution.
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