Spyware is a type of malware that allows hackers to view a user’s computer activity. Spyware is sometimes used as an illicit means for collecting advertising information such as email addresses, phone numbers, or mailing addresses, but it can also be used to collect sensitive data like passwords, social security numbers, and credit card information.

How does spyware work?

Spyware is distinct from viruses or worms in that it is not self-replicating. Instead, it is most commonly installed on end devices using Trojan horses, usually by deceiving a user into downloading freeware or shareware that is laced with spyware. Once installed, the spyware monitors user activity on the internet and transmits that information in the background to the hacker’s computer. 

Technically speaking, spyware exists as independently executable programs. This means they have the ability to monitor keystrokes, scan files on the hard drive, install programs, read cookies, and modify system configurations. In some instances, hackers can use spyware to consume a device’s bandwidth to make it perform slowly or crash entirely. Other applications of spyware are screen recording and remote access, which allows the hacker to view the infected device’s screen and activity levels in real time.

Types of spyware

There are many types of spyware that are intended for specific purposes. Sometimes they are built from scratch, and sometimes they are modeled after legitimate software programs. In either case, they are designed with malicious intent. Examples of both types of spyware include:

How to prevent spyware

There are many measures businesses can take to prevent spyware from impacting users’ devices. The most prominent tool is anti-malware software, which can detect and remediate spyware before it can do any damage. Patch management tools can work in tandem with anti-malware software to ensure all business applications and systems are up-to-date and minimize the risk of exposed vulnerabilities.

For larger organizations with more advanced needs, zero trust measures like microsegmentation can help add an extra layer of security around each individual device. In turn, this helps prevent an infected device from impacting the broader organization.

Ultimately, the most impactful method of preventing spyware attacks is training employees to recognize suspicious attachments, pop-ups, links, and other spyware vectors. Once a training has been completed, it’s important to test employees’ reactions with a simulated spyware encounter. If an employee fails the test, they should revisit the training until they are able to correctly identify—and avoid—spyware.

Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal is a freelance business and technology writer covering Internet technologies and online business since the late '90s.
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