Avast Academy Security Malware What Is Spyware, Who Can Be Attacked, and How to Prevent It

What Is Spyware, Who Can Be Attacked, and How Can You Prevent It?

Spyware can infect any device, giving people full access to your sensitive information like passwords, banking details, or even your digital identity. So what exactly is spyware and what does it do? Read on for a full spyware definition and learn how to detect, prevent, and remove spyware with a powerful online security tool like Avast One.

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Written by Patrick Seguin
Published on April 3, 2023

What is spyware?

Spyware is a type of malware that hides on your device, secretly recording information and tracking your online activity. Spy software can monitor and copy text you enter, apps you use, websites you visit, and docs you read. Some strains of spyware can also access your camera and mic to watch and record you.

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    Computer spyware, by definition, is designed to be invisible, which is one of its most harmful attributes — the longer it goes undetected, the more damage it can cause. Sometimes called stalkerware or spouseware, spyware is like a virtual stalker that follows you through your device usage, collecting your personal data along the way.

    Computer spyware can track all your online activities.Computer spyware covertly watches and collects what you on your device.

    How spyware works

    Spyware works by accessing your device, usually after you accidentally install a malicious file. Once on your computer or mobile device, spyware begins secretly recording your activity. Though specific strains have specific behaviors, cyberthieves use spyware to collect data and personal information, which they might then sell to data brokers or hackers.

    Once it’s on your computer or mobile device, spyware can carry out a distressing array of covert operations, including:

    • Keylogging, which records everything you type — including usernames, passwords, and banking info.

    • Recording audio, video, and screen captures.

    • Accessing your device remotely.

    • Capturing content from your emails, messages, and social apps.

    • Recording and capturing your browser history.

    Unfortunately, these capabilities have attracted the interest of stalkers and jealous partners. The National Network to End Domestic Violence worked with Avast to compile tips to combat spyware and other invasive smart device tools for those struggling in abusive situations and relationships.

    Certain spyware providers market their products as parental control tools or employee monitoring programs and claim they discourage consumers from using their products to spy. But, their advertising tactics and disclaimers are akin to those for massage wands. One can — and should — use the product according to the official instructions, but it doesn’t prevent people from using it in other ways.

    Some of the sensitive data collected through known spyware apps include:

    • Login credentials, such as passwords and usernames

    • Email addresses

    • Account PINs

    • Credit card details

    • Keyboard strokes

    • Browsing behavior

    Types of spyware

    Spyware has uses beyond secretly monitoring you, capturing your sensitive data, or tracking your online activities. Some strains of spyware can force unwanted pop-up ads into your browser or even overwork your device’s processor. Others are used to create traffic for websites.

    Here’s a roundup of some of the most common types of spyware out there:

    Adware automatically displays advertisements while you’re browsing the internet or using advertising-supported software. As a type of malware, adware secretly installs itself on your computer or mobile device, spies on your browsing history, then serves you intrusive ads.

    Keyloggers record all the keystrokes you make on your infected device, then save the information in an encrypted log file. Short for “keystroke logging,” this type of spyware collects everything you type into your computer, smartphone, or tablet, including text messages, emails, usernames, and passwords.

    Infostealers collect information from your computer or mobile systems. Keyloggers are a type of infostealer; other types of infostealers can do much more than record and store information acquired from your keystrokes. They can also scan your computer for specific information and harvest your browsing history, documents, and instant messages. Some infostealer strains like Baldr can do all their dirty work in one fell swoop before disappearing from their targets’ computers.

    Red Shell spyware is a type of spyware that installs itself during the installation of certain PC games, then tracks gamers’ online activities. Its makers allegedly wanted to help developers improve their games, but the software was installed without a person’s knowledge or consent.

    Cookies can be useful for instantly logging you into your favorite websites, keeping track of your settings and preferences, and serving you reasonably relevant advertisements. But web tracking cookies are like spyware, because they follow you online, track your browsing history, and record your login attempts. With the right knowledge and tools, a black hat hacker might use cookies to recreate your login sessions. That’s one reason you should practice good digital hygiene and periodically delete your tracking cookies or even disable them entirely.

    Rootkits enable criminals to infiltrate computers and mobile devices and access them at a very deep level. To achieve this, rootkits can exploit security vulnerabilities, use a trojan horse, or log in to a machine as an administrator. Rootkits are typically difficult or impossible to detect, but they can be prevented with a strong anti-rootkit tool.

    Are all types of spyware malicious?

    No, there are some valid applications of spyware. For example, your employer might use spyware to monitor employee devices with the aim of protecting proprietary information or ensuring the security of the company network. Parental controls that limit device usage or block inappropriate content are also a legitimate form of spyware.

    Chances are, you’ll be aware of any benign spyware when it’s on a device you’re using.Here, we’re focusing on malicious spyware, meaning spyware that sneaks its way onto your device without your knowledge, and with ill intent.

    How to tell if you have spyware

    Spyware is designed to be undetectable and untraceable, making it difficult to tell if you have it but not impossible.

    Here are the most obvious warning signs of a spyware infection:

    • Your device runs slower than normal.

    • Your device freezes or crashes frequently.

    • You start getting a ton of pop-ups.

    • Your browser homepage changes unexpectedly.

    • New or unidentifiable icons appear in the taskbar.

    • Web searches redirect you to a different search engine.

    • You start getting random error messages when using apps that you’ve never had issues with before.

    Of course, these could also be symptoms of other malware infections. To determine exactly what you’re dealing with, dig a bit deeper and scan your device with antivirus software that includes a spyware scanner and remover.

    Examples of spyware threats

    Here are some of the most infamous examples of spyware:

    • Olympic Vision
      Olympic spyware spreads via an email campaign directed at employees of targeted companies. It records keystrokes and steals clipboard contents and user credentials.

    • Zlob
      Zlob is trojan horse spyware that downloads itself onto a computer and records a victim’s browsing history and keystrokes.

    • TIBS Dialer
      This is a modem hijacker that disconnects a victim’s PC from a local phone line and connects it to a toll number that accesses pornographic sites.

    • CoolWebSearch (CWS)
      This spyware exploits security vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer to take over the browser, change its settings, redirect the user to suspicious websites, and track the victim’s activity.

    • Gator
      No longer around, this spyware program would download onto a user’s computer without their knowledge or permission. It would then monitor their browsing habits and target them with display ads.

    How to prevent spyware

    While there isn’t a surefire way to stop spyware from watching your activity, you can help prevent it from infecting your devices in the first place. The minimal time and effort you spend doing this will save you the headache of removing it.

    Here are a few tips that will help prevent spyware from infecting your device:



    Use trusted antivirus software with anti-spyware and anti-malware features

    Open suspicious email attachments

    Avoid chatting with strangers in messaging apps

    Click online pop-ups (block them entirely with a secure browser)

    Keep your operating system updated

    Open links in texts from unknown numbers

    How to remove spyware

    If spyware has found its way inside your computer, here’s what to do:

    1. Uninstall any apps you don’t recognize.

    2. Run a spyware scan with advanced security software like Avast One to remove any malware and clean your system. This will also safeguard you from future attacks.

    3. If your device is still acting up, you may need to do a factory reset.

    If you suspect that your smartphone has been infected with spyware, follow the relevant guide:

    Who is most under threat from spyware?

    People who rely heavily on online banking are particularly alluring targets for hackers looking to capture and exploit financial details. Businesses need to be especially vigilant against spyware to protect their finances and private information.

    There are also high-profile cases of authoritarian governments using spyware to secretly keep tabs on journalists and human rights activists. Furthermore, some companies based in countries like China or Russia, such as Moscow-based Kaspersky, have been labeled a security risk by Western governments due to alleged state interference and misuse of their software.

    As with most malware, we’re all one careless click, tap, download, or installation away from falling victim to spyware. Some sophisticated strains of spyware can even infect mobile devices through calling apps such as Skype. One highly advanced variant exploits a vulnerability in the popular messaging app WhatsApp to infect smartphones regardless of whether or not a target even answers the attacker’s call.

    Generally, everyone who uses a computer, smartphone, tablet, or smart device can become a target of malware. While Windows users are most at risk, spyware has evolved to the point where a growing number of strains are capable of infecting Macs, as well as iOS and Android devices.

    Spyware and mobile devices

    If we take the thriving mobile spyware industry as an indicator, this form of malware is on the rise. The notorious mobile spyware strain called Pegasus has been repeatedly used against politicians, journalists, and activists around the world. And while the developers of other “mobile monitoring software” claim their products are for employers and parents, there’s nothing stopping anyone from using them for nefarious purposes.

    Spyware on a mobile phone can monitor everything from emails to financial transactions.Mobile spyware can monitor everything from emails to financial transactions.

    Like computers, smartphones and tablets are also vulnerable to malware. A consistent increase in usage offers cybercriminals a growing number of targets. At the same time, increasingly complex hardware and networks are facilitating the development of new, more powerful malware. On top of this, smartphones offer attackers an additional means of infiltration: text messaging, or SMS.

    You can prevent many mobile threats with antivirus for Android and iPhone antivirus.

    Say goodbye to spyware

    Affordable, effective, and nearly undetectable, spyware has become increasingly popular among cybercriminals, making it a huge online threat. But, keeping it off your computers and mobile devices doesn’t have to be difficult. First, stay aware and stay away from links, attachments, and pop-ups that look suspicious.

    Then, get ahead of spyware attacks with Avast One, a powerful spyware prevention tool that provides top-notch cybersecurity protection. Join the more than 400 million people who already trust Avast with their security and privacy. Install Avast One for free today.

    Spyware FAQs

    Is spyware a virus?

    Spyware and viruses are both common examples of malicious software (malware), but spyware is not a virus. A computer virus inserts itself into a host program to copy itself and spread through networks of devices. Spyware is designed to sit undetected on each device it infects.

    Some types of viruses can bring spyware along for the ride as they spread. But that’s not the only way to contract a nasty spyware infection. You can also pick up all kinds of malware from unsafe websites, suspicious links and email attachments, and infected hardware like USB drives.

    What should I do if my device gets infected?

    If spyware infiltrates any of your devices, first isolate the afflicted hardware in case the attack is virus-based. Once you’ve done this, use a trusted spyware removal tool. Then, check out our guide on removing spyware from a Windows computer to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

    What can a spyware program do?

    A spyware program is designed to enter your computer or mobile device without your knowledge, meaning it can freely gather information about you and share it with the spyware authors. The end goal is usually financial fraud, account hacking, or even identity theft.

    How do I detect spyware?

    The best way to find out if spyware is on your computer or phone is to use a cybersecurity tool. You can run a free spyware scan using Avast One to detect and remove any threats. It will also help keep spyware and other malware off your device in the future.

    What are the four types of spyware?

    • Adware infects your device and inundates you with ads.

    • Trojans trick you into installing them so they can access your data.

    • Internet trackers monitor your online activity, searches, and downloads.

    • System monitors can capture nearly everything you do, and they can even make system modifications.

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    Patrick Seguin