What Is Spyware?

Although it sounds like something James Bond would employ, spyware is all too real. Spyware is any software that installs itself on your computer and starts covertly monitoring your online behavior without your knowledge or permission. Spyware is a kind of malware that secretly gathers information about a person or organization and relays this data to other parties. In some cases, these may be advertisers or marketing data firms, which is why spyware is sometimes referred to as “adware.” It is installed without user consent by methods such as a drive-by download, a trojan included with a legitimate program or a deceptive pop-up window.

Spyware uses your internet connection to relay personal information such as your name, address, browsing habits, preferences, interests or downloads. Other forms of spyware hijack your browser to point it to another website, cause your device to place calls or send texts automatically, or serve annoying ads even when you are offline. Spyware that steals your username, password or other credentials is referred to as a “keylogger” – an insidious prerequisite for cyber crime.

Signs of a spyware infection can include unwanted behaviors and degradation of system performance. It can eat up CPU capacity, disk usage and network traffic. Stability issues such as applications freezing, failure to boot, difficulty connecting to the internet and system crashes are also common.

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Spyware and User Privacy

Not all data collection programs are spyware, as long as the user fully understands what data is being collected and with whom it is being shared. Tracking and reporting user information can help legitimate software vendors to improve their products or better support customers. For this reason, marketing firms often object to having their services called "spyware." The line between illegal spyware and legitimate data collection is often drawn at cookies, a well-known method of storing information about internet behavior on individuals' devices. Some users allow cookies; others abhor them.

Divergent attitudes about the definitions of spyware make it an integral concern of privacy experts, who question and debate its merit. Spyware is virtually unregulated. These programs seldom if ever include a mechanism for the user to oversee and approve what information is being gathered and how it is shared, even if the usage is lawful. Add to this the fact that spyware devours computing resources like bandwidth, processing power and memory without any control. It’s easy to see why security experts seek to prevent and defend against spyware.

Tips to Prevent Spyware

Use an anti-spyware scanner. There are many anti-spyware programs available that will scan your computer to detect malicious tracking software. Removing spyware from a computer or device can be tricky, but it can always be quarantined to no longer function. Most packages provide ongoing anti-spyware protection against the real-time installation of new spyware by scanning incoming traffic and blocking any potential threats. Like any anti-virus program, anti-spyware tools must be updated regularly to remain fully effective.

Adjust browser security settings. Most browsers allow you to adjust their security levels along a scale from “high” to “low.” Get to know these options, as some browsers can function like a firewall against unwanted operations, even cookie installation if so desired.

Be very wary of pop-ups. Ads and offers displayed in pop-up windows, especially those that appear unexpectedly, often mask deceptive purposes. Some pretend a virus infection has been discovered on your computer or offer a plug-in that purports to improve your browsing experience. Never click "agree" or "OK" to close a window; instead click the red "x" in the corner of the window to close. Practice skeptical computing – assume that any new program is potentially harmful until proven safe. Answering “yes” to a prompt that you don't understand can allow spyware to be loaded.

Understand that “free" is never “free.” In most cases with free apps, you implicitly agree to trade tracking for services. You “pay” for the app by agreeing to receive targeted ads. You can decide that this is a fair trade off, but most companies need to track your online activities to determine which ads to show you.

Always read terms & conditions. Legitimate software vendors will disclose information about how they collect and employ user information in their terms and conditions. Most users don’t even bother to read them. If you are particularly adamant about protecting your online privacy, it’s best to know exactly what you are signing up for. If privacy policies are abused or changed without user knowledge, a software vendor can seriously violate user trust no matter its original intent.

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