What is spyware, exactly? Cybersecurity experts explain

·4-min read

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Spyware can strike at any time — here's how to protect yourself. (Photo: Getty)
Spyware can strike at any time — here's how to protect yourself. (Photo: Getty)

Spyware is one of those terms that's thrown around a lot in cybersecurity that you might be a little hazy on what, exactly, it is. Still, you're probably at least aware on some level that it's bad.

Spyware can strike at any time, and it most recently happened during an Apple data breach. The company issued an emergency spyware alert in September, urging users with iPhones, iPads and other Apple devices to update their software ASAP, after learning that Israeli spyware company NSO Group had developed a way to take control of nearly any Apple computer, watch or iPhone.

You shouldn't panic about spyware, but you do want to make sure you're protected against it. One way to fend off spyware is to invest in powerful software like Norton Security Online — a leader in cybersecurity. One account can help protect up to five mobile devices from all kinds of cyber threats.

Once it's downloaded, Norton Security Online helps find and get rid of existing malware (including spyware), along with warding off future attempted attacks in real time. It even helps shield your personal and financial data, protecting your assets. 

Shop it: Norton Security Online, 30-day free trial, then $4.99 a month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

One way to fend off spyware is to invest in powerful software like Norton Security Online. (Photo: Getty)
One way to fend off spyware is to invest in powerful software like Norton Security Online. (Photo: Getty)

OK, but what is spyware, exactly? Here's what you need to know. 

What is spyware?

"Spyware is software with malicious intent or purpose," Tom Kelly, president and chief executive officer of the consumer privacy platform IDX, tells Yahoo Life. "This software can acquire information about a person or organization and send it to another entity to cause harm." Spyware can include hacking into the personal device of a user and bypassing security and firewalls, Kelly says. 

Spyware usually "monitors your behavior on a computer or device and then collects and transmits that data, with or without your permission," tech and cybersecurity expert Chuck Brooks, president of Brooks Consulting International, tells Yahoo Life. You may unintentionally pick it up when you download a free app, or it could even be installed when you click a link on a website, explains Brooks. 

Why is spyware bad?

There are a few different reasons why you don't want spyware on your devices:

  • It infringes on your privacy. "Spyware can install 'keyloggers,' which record your keystrokes," Brooks says. "That is, they record everything you type." 

  • Most people aren't aware they have it. "Most users are oblivious to its installation, use, and the implications of having their web searching and buying habits shared with companies," Brooks says.

  • It can turn into a cyber-threat. "Often, the data is sold to third parties and is not protected," Brooks says. "The data can be valuable to hackers if accessed for social engineering attacks, especially for identity theft."

Taking steps now to ward off future attacks will go a long way towards protecting your private information. (Photo: Getty)
Taking steps now to ward off future attacks will go a long way towards protecting your private information. (Photo: Getty)

What are the different types of spyware?

There isn't just one type of spyware — there are actually different ones you may come across. 

  • Adware. Kelly describes this as "unwanted software that displays ads on your screen, most often within a web browser, in the form of a new tab opening or a change in your web page." Examples include weight-loss ads that promote cure-all pills and giveaways asking you to enter your credit card information for a free gadget.

  • System monitors. This is special software that lets administrators or owners of a corporation monitor their internet infrastructure, explains Kelly. "It can provide an inside look into web traffic, downloaded programs, applications, etc., on an employee computer," he says. "But it also is a great resource for protecting privacy because it’s able to detect any disruptions or red flags. They do often run in the background, so users are typically unaware they’re being monitored."

  • Web tracking. Web tracking is a tool that "measures website activity of a user and provides the operator with third-party information of the user, allowing them to store, collect and share information about a visitor’s activity on the website," Kelly says. He adds, "depending on who has access, this can both be beneficial to a corporation, but also harmful."

  • Trojans. These are "malicious programs that look like desirable programs and applications," Kelly says, noting that "they are designed to cause identity theft, data harvesting and can even acquire computer data." Trojans usually come in the form of email attachments or broken web links that invite the user to click on something that gives a hacker the ability to gain access to their device.  

Overall, spyware is not something you want on any of your devices. Taking steps now to ward off future attacks will go a long way towards protecting your private information.

Shop it: Norton Security Online, 30-day free trial, then $4.99 a month, subscriptions.yahoo.com

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