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Is spyware spying on you? What can you do about it?

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Spyware refers to any software that can be used to track or spy on your activity on a computer, mobile, tablet, or any other digital device.

Often, the term applies to malware that is installed on a computer with a malicious intent to watch a user's actions and replicate them in order to steal data or other information referring to a user. Whether it's the original hacker's intent or not, once a criminal has gained access via spyware, they are able to track anyone's actions on the computer - not just the owner's.

It's normally installed on a device without the user knowing and once it's running, it's often unlikely they'll be able to see anything different happening to their machine or mobile.

The types of information hackers are able to track include keystrokes, the websites someone has visited and their usernames and passwords for those websites, plus other sensitive data that can be used to hack into accounts and carry out other fraudulent activities.

Performance issues

One of the reasons spyware can be such a problem is not only can it give criminals a way into your computer and the opportunity to steal data, but it can also significantly slow down a user's computer as it tracks everything you do.

Spyware can also be used to redirect web searches to questionable websites (used for phishing, fr example), and change the settings of your computer, throttling bandwidth, memory and other processor tasks in the meantime.

“Legitimate” spyware

There are times when software that acts like spyware is installed for reasons that are not just criminal. Organisations may install tracking software on corporate-owned hardware to track an employee’s browsing habits. Parents may also use similar software to spy on their kids’ online activity.

Advertisers use cookies to track users in order to target advertising at them. However, if a user is notified that data is being collected on them, such actions may not be considered spyware (even if the data collected is the same).

Different types of spyware

Spyware can take many different forms, each having their own functions and purpose. The four main types are:

Adware – this spyware tracks information about a user, sucking up data such as web searches, frequently visited websites and downloads. This information is then used to display window ads or pop-up ads.

Trojans – this is malware that appears to be legitimate but can fool users into installing it onto their computers and mobile devices. These Trojans are used to access sensitive data and files and can affect system performance.

Cookie trackers – third-party tracking cookies monitor a user’s internet activities such as web searches, history, downloads, etc for business, marketing or other reasons, depending on the motives of the hacker.

System monitors and keyloggers – this type of spyware is designed to monitor activity on a computer and record data such as keystrokes, sites visited, emails and more, often for nefarious purposes.

Dealing with spyware

If you suspect your computer has spyware on it, you can do the following.

Disconnect the computer from the internet. This may seem like an extreme move but can help prevent the spread of malware and leaking of sensitive data.

If you boot into Safe Mode on a Windows PC, this will only load the minimum number of programs and processes. It may also prevent spyware from loading. When in Safe Mode, delete temporary files. This will speed up spyware scanning. Use can also use the Disk Cleanup utility in Windows; just type Disk Cleanup into the search bar and click on this to start the process.

You can then run an anti-spyware application to remove any spyware or malware from the computer (if you have disconnected the PC from the internet, you may have to either reconnect it to download the anti-spyware app or download this app to a USB drive on another computer).

After this you can then scan the computer to find and remove any spyware or malware you suspect is on your computer, hopefully purging it and the opportunities for cyber criminals to steal your data from your computer.

Written by Clare Hopping & Rene Millman

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Guest Saturday, 25 May 2019


We help over 14,000 customers a month through our IT support centre in Guildford, Surrey

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