Spyware is a modern plague. It’s dastardly, devilish and insinuates itself into millions of computers without people being aware of it. Find out just what spyware is, what it does, where it comes from, how to avoid it and how to get rid of it by reading on. The term ‘spyware’ has a faintly exotic ring to it and for the imaginative it may call to mind tales of daring and espionage in the interests of national security.  Certainly, back in the 1970’s real life cold war NATO spies were using a form of spyware, keystroke loggers, to infiltrate Russian military networks. These keystroke loggers were physically attached to computers and clearly the spies who were doing this were running a real risk.   But today, given the explosive ubiquity of the internet spyware is everywhere and generally and quite rightly considered as something that is invasive, sneakily stealthy, annoying, exploitative and like driving a tank through someone’s privacy rights. The first known spyware was something called the Elf Bowling programme, which on the surface was a mildly entertaining game but actually acted as a Trojan for a stealth programme which sent information to the game’s creator NSoft. Elf appeared in the mid 1990’s and in sense gave birth to a tide of spyware that has pretty much turned into a tsunami. There’s been a huge tranche of research on how pervasive spyware has become and while the report sources differ they all reach the same conclusion, spyware has grown phenomenally. It’s also deeply irritating. Back in 2007, US outfit, Consumer Reports said 850,000 US households had been prompted to change their computers because they had become so clogged up with spyware. We’ve become a bit more sophisticated these days, in that it’s easier to get rid of spyware – sometimes – but it’s still an enormous threat. At its most innocuous spyware tracks your internet browsing to find out what ads you might be interested it, and at its most dangerous it can plunder your computer and scoop up all your personal data including credit card and banking information.  

So what exactly is spyware?

You can define spyware by comparing it to computer viruses. A virus is a piece of computer code that is designed to replicate itself spreading like a common cold to as many computers as possible. It usually has a payload that will damage personal files or even the computer’s operating system. Traditionally, spyware on the other hand isn’t generally designed to wreak havoc rather it intends to secretly insert itself into your computer without your knowledge or permission and hide in the background, while it sets about making unwanted changes to your computer. The damage created by spyware, used to be a side-effect of its main mission which was once to serve targeted advertisements or make a browser display certain websites or search results, and nag you with unwanted sales offers. But that said spyware today is increasingly being used to steal private information such as user names, banking site passwords, email account, social network and online game details. In fact, it’s become a common tool for fraudsters and you can easily and unwittingly install it when you upload legitimate software, visit websites that may be a little suspect or clicking on links in emails – a common spyware infection method. Spyware is a bit on an umbrella term to cover its many forms.  But whichever form is used all have the same common aim - to spy on you.

Here’s a list of the most common types:
Adware – this is one is pervasive and inflicts itself upon millions of computer users worldwide and many of them are not even aware of it. It sits on your computer and springs into action as soon as you go online. As soon as you do it swamps you with popup ads.  The aim is to get you to click on the ads, which generates money for the spyware installer. It can also monitor your browsing patterns so the spyware installer can see what ads you are interested and stalk you online with ads that may at least pique your curiosity and increase the chance of you clicking on them.
Browser hijackers – if anyone type of spyware was to get a medal for annoyance this one would probably take number one spot on the podium. Bowser hijackers will change your browser’s default settings and homepage and may also change your search engine. It will then redirect you to a specific page or website loaded with ads. It can be deeply irritating because it feels like your computer has been taken over and it’s often very difficult to remove.
Key loggers – keyloggers can be either hardware or software but most commonly its software. A keylogger sits in the computer’s memory and is both insidious and dangerous as it records everything that is typed. It then sends the information to the person who has created and planted it who then analyzes the data for usernames, passwords and other personal information.
Trojan horses – another spyware nasty.  Generally, Trojans will come disguised as something legitimate such as software which unknown to the user will have something more sinister hidden inside designed to serve ads and spy on your browsing habits or steal your personal information. It’s often buried so deep in the software that you won’t notice.
Cookies – you’ll have heard of cookies and while they’re often legitimate they can be classified as spyware. Cookies are typically used to remember the user and personalise your browsing experience.  Spyware and adware however can use these cookies to track where you’re going on the internet and store information so you’ll be swamped with ads.  

How do you protect against spyware?

A common method for distributing spyware is through freeware or shareware. These programmes will typically have minimal licence restrictions to attract users and the programme itself may actually be quite appealing. But some spyware designed to scoop your personal browsing data often comes with terms and conditions that say to the user that by agreeing to use the programme they also agree to have their personal details monitored. Of course the T&C’s don’t put it so bluntly by saying, ‘by the way, by using our software you must agree to let us snoop around on your device.’ What they do is create T&Cs that are impossibly long and couch everything in legalese jargon knowing that very few people are going to pick through the document, and most will simply accept the T&Cs. The golden rule is to be very careful about what you download, especially from shareware download sites.  Many shareware download sites today test shareware programmes that are submitted to them and as result usually claim that the shareware offered on their site is free of spyware. If you’re uncertain about the shareware sites see if you can find any reviews of the site as these will offer a good guide to their integrity. However, this to one side a really obvious step is to ensure that you have good antivirus software installed. You want something that rates highly in independent lab tests and preferably offers layered protection, that is, it uses both traditional signature-based detection and also behavioural detection to identify abnormal behaviour on a computer. However, be warned. There are quite a few malicious programmes out there that masquerade as antispyware and antivirus tools.  You’ll often find them advertised in spam email but don’t trust them.  They can encrypt your hard drive so you can’t read your data or they will keep appearing in popup windows so frequently that you can’t actually use your computer. These programmes are often used to try and extort money.  

Have you got spyware on your computer?

If you’re being plagued by pop up ads or your computer has slowed down to a crawl there’s an extremely good chance that you’ve got spyware on your computer. If you want to check whether your computer is infected run this free antivirus online scan.  

How to remove spyware

To remove spyware the first thing you might want to do is go to the Control Panel in Windows and check the list of Installed Programmes. All the programmes on your computer will be on this list and there’s a chance that spyware programmes will be shown. If it is you simply highlight it and click on Uninstall. However, some spyware insinuates itself in the system so you can’t see it. And the most devious won’t actually uninstall even if you find it or if you do delete it, it actually remains in place. But at the end of the day you really should be running some good antivirus software that has a spyware component in it. Firstly, this will stop you getting infected with spyware in the first place and secondly, it will identify potentially malicious website links and emails containing links that are suspicious. This will protect your computer from becoming further infected. You can establish the credibility of antivirus software by assessing what independent testing labs say about it and also establishing whether it offers a combination of detection methods. This latter point is particularly important because it spyware is evolving all the time and the more devious its purpose the more care fraudsters use when crafting it, and especially so to avoid traditional detection methods.  

Tips and tricks to keep spyware out

  • Avoid spam email as though it is loaded with spyware because it may well be – and don’t click on any links or attachments, unless you were expecting the email
  • Make use of antivirus software and pay heed to any security alerts
  • Make sure you’ve got a firewall for incoming and outgoing protection
  • Regularly update your operating system, browser and other software when the updates become available
  • When you aren’t using your computer shut it down and disconnect from the internet
  • Download and install software only from sources that you trust
  • As turgid as they may be try and read privacy statements and if they hold questionable practices get out of there by aborting the installation
  • Use updated anti-spyware software to scan your hard drive and always download it from a trusted source.