Home / Definitions / Spyware


Vangie Beal
Last Updated January 12, 2024 3:57 am

What is spyware?

Spyware is a specific type of malware that allows hackers to view your computer activity. It is sometimes used as an illicit means for collecting advertising information, such as email addresses, phone numbers, or mailing addresses. It can also be used to collect sensitive data like passwords, social security numbers, and credit card information. As our lives become more digital, spyware attacks are on the rise – so it pays to understand them.

What does spyware do?

Spyware does exactly what you’d expect: it covertly monitors your activity, transmitting that information to a third party.

It can monitor your keystrokes, scan files on your hard drive, install malicious programs, read cookies, and modify system configurations. In some instances, hackers can use it to consume your device’s bandwidth, making it perform slowly or crash.

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.

How does spyware attack your system?

Spyware is most commonly installed on end devices using a Trojan horse approach. In other words, hackers conceal spyware as legitimate files or data. This means you’re more likely to “let in” the malicious code, believing it to be something else. This clever strategy makes you the attack vector.

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 tell if you have spyware

Although this type of malicious software is designed to be discrete, there are a few symptoms that might indicate your device is infected. These include:

  • Your system running slower than usual
  • Frequent crashing or freezing
  • A sudden surge in pop-up ads
  • Error messages
  • New icons appearing in the task bar

How to prevent spyware

Here’s how you can prevent spyware from entering your system – whether you’re an individual or a business.

Use anti-malware software

Anti-malware scans your incoming internet traffic and blocks potential threats.  This prevents your computer from letting in any undesirable code to start with. 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.

Adjust browser settings

Most browsers enable you to adjust their security settings on a spectrum between high and low. Security on the high end can act as a firewall, protecting against some undesirable incoming traffic.

Never click pop-ups

Remember we spoke about spyware masquerading as other things? Pop-ups are a great example of that in action. Often, pop-ups will declare that “your computer has been infected” and direct you to click for more information. Ironically, it’s often those pop-ups concealing the malicious code.

Don’t click the link or download anything. Instead, simply X out of the pop-up – you’ll prevent the malicious payload from being installed on your computer.

Train users to recognize security risks

Ultimately, the most effective method of keeping these attacks at bay is making sure you know what to look for.

This especially important for large organizations. Training employees to recognize suspicious attachments, pop-ups, links, and other vectors is an essential risk management strategy. It’s also important to test employees’ security knowledge continuously with attack simulations.

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.