For many, the idea of spyware sounds like it comes from a film plot where government agents infiltrate the mobile devices of politicians from foreign countries to eavesdrop on and monitor their activities. Surprisingly or not, that scenario is not too far removed from reality as confirmed by the actions of the NSO Group, an Israeli company, infamous for selling tracking software known as Pegasus that infected targets via WhatsApp. But government officials are not the only ones at risk.
Here’s everything you need to know about spyware – from who it targets, how to detect it on your phone or pc, and tips to protect your devices.
What is spyware and who does it target?
Spyware is a type of surveillance software that secretly monitors and collects information about you and your online activities. It can find its way onto your phone or personal computer as legitimate software or a malicious app. Besides invading your privacy, spyware leaves you vulnerable to data breaches and identity theft.
Its ability to avoid detection makes spyware particularly dangerous. Cybercriminals will use it to gain access to your most private data like your passwords, credit card information, or online banking accounts.
Perhaps less harmful, but just as unnerving is the use of spyware by advertisers. Adware can be considered spyware when used to track your online habits. For example, collecting information about the websites you have visited to send you more relevant ads in the hopes of monetizing your clicks.
How do different types of spyware work?
Different types of spyware have different goals, so the way it functions will vary accordingly. Here are some common types of spyware that can sneak onto your phone or computer and how they work:
Keyloggers: keylogging spyware records your keystrokes to gain access to everything you type on your device. That means it can gather information like your username and login credentials, as well as any other communications.
Tracking cookies: If cookie files are installed to track your online activities without your consent, then they can be considered spyware. Especially if they are selling the information gathered about what you do online to third parties. This pertains to malicious adware too.
Trojan spyware: Installing itself via Trojan malware, Trojan spyware will make changes to your security settings to gain and allow remote control of your device.
Signs your computer or phone has been infected with spyware
As previously stated, what makes spyware so threatening is that most likely you won’t even know it has infected your device. However, as hackers tend to bundle spyware with Trojans and malicious adware, there are a few signs to look out for.
The first tell-tale sign of spyware is if your device’s speed is not functioning per normal. Spyware needs a lot of power and bandwidth to process the data its stolen, so it tends to significantly slow down your device. Another indication of being infected with spyware is suddenly seeing a disproportionate number of pop-up ads even when not surfing the web. Lastly, be alert to changes to your home screen, or new toolbars or search engines you didn’t actually download or install.
How to protect yourself from spyware
Besides taking steps to protect your device, you can prevent spyware by being more aware of your own actions while online. Let’s take a closer look at some of the general steps you can take to stop spyware.
How to keep spyware off your phone
- Keep your software updated. Running an outdated version of an app increases your chances of being vulnerable to malware as you won’t have the necessary security patches.
- Be careful about clicking on suspicious links in emails and text messages or downloading documents from both know or unknown senders. Malware is often delivered through bogus URLs or via email attachments.
- In addition to an anti-spyware software install an ad-blocking browser extension that blocks online trackers.
There are some additional recommendations for preventing and protecting your phone from spyware. Take note of the below:
How to stop spyware on all devices
- Only download apps from the official app stores as they have stricter security reviews than third-party app stores.
- And as the official stores cannot completely keep malicious apps at bay make sure you download apps from trusted publishers.
- Once an app is installed look at what permissions it has. Consider turning off access to your phone’s microphone camera and location data unless it’s completely necessary for the user experience. You can also set it to have access only when the app is in use.
One of the best ways to stop spyware is to install a powerful antivirus on your computer and mobile devices. Choosing a tool like Avira Free Antivirus ensures you have spyware protection and removal tool, as well as powerful antivirus that blocks threats like Trojans, malware, and phishing in real-time. Or opt for a standalone spyware cleaner and install an anti-spyware browser extension. Avira Browser Safety is available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browsers, and along with its ad-blocking capabilities, identifies and blocks unwanted application downloads.