Your everyday tech holds so much valuable information. Between your computer, smartphone and tablet, we’re talking precious photos, private files and enough personal data to make hackers come running.
And with more and more of our information stored digitally, we’re exposed like never before to cybercriminals who want to get their hands on it. One of the sneakiest ways they do it? Spyware.
Spyware is malicious software secretly installed on your device. We’ll tell you exactly how it works and what you need to do to protect yourself from it.
What is spyware?
Spyware refers to software that is secretly installed on your device with malicious intent. Criminals use it to steal personally identifiable information (PII), credit card details, browsing history, website login credentials and more.
It’s designed to be secret — you probably won’t even know it’s operating in the background as it has minimal impact on system resources. But, you’ll eventually figure it out once your bank accounts are drained or if your identity is stolen.
Spyware is believed to have originated in the mid-90s. But it was only in the early 2000s that it became synonymous with venomous software as it caught the attention of cybersecurity firms who recognized it as a real threat.
When talking about spyware, it’s important to understand that it could mean several different things. Here are a few examples:
Keyloggers track your keyboard strokes to detect things like passwords, financial details or just to keep track of your internet usage. Employers can use them to keep an eye on employee habits while hackers use them for more nefarious purposes.
Pleased with that free software you just downloaded online? There’s a chance it might spring a nasty surprise in the form of adware.
Adware secretly installs tracking cookies in your browser and mines web browsing history. The goal is to collect critical data so it can be sold to third-party advertisers.
It could also inundate you with annoying pop-up advertisements until you’re forced to make a purchase. As they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Trojans are a form of software disguised to appear as safe, innocuous programs; however, they wreak havoc the instant you download and install them on your device — revealing your personal details to the criminal who infected your device with it.
How does your device get spyware?
A common method hackers use to spread spyware is by exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities in your device. These vulnerabilities are deficiencies in existing software that haven’t been identified or patched yet.
Hackers constantly scan popular software for such flaws and, in many cases, identifies them before the company can. Consumers may also exacerbate this problem by declining to download security fixes when they’re available. That’s why we recommend keeping your devices updated at all times.
Another common technique is the use of phishing and spoofing. This is when hackers persuade you to engage in an action that will give them access to your device. Usually, it’s in the form of a convincing email that appears from a trusted source or a pop-up ad that redirects you to a malicious site.
If you think you’ve fallen victim to a spyware attack, the best course of action is to immediately stop using the device until it’s been safely exterminated or quarantined.
Start by running a deep system scan with an antivirus tool or other security software. Preventing spyware from infecting your device in the first place should be your main objective.
New versions of malware are being created and spread every single day. Antivirus tools certainly do their best to keep up, but it’s possible some may slip through the cracks.
How to protect your critical data
As a general rule, ensure you stay one step ahead of cybercriminals. We mentioned earlier how it’s important to keep your devices updated, but there are other steps you can take, too.
For example, never click on links found inside that email you get from the Nigerian prince promising you millions in unclaimed money. In fact, it’s a good idea to not click on links in any unsolicited email. It could be a phishing attack that leads to your device being infected with malware.
Also, try to avoid visiting strange websites, such as those that offer shady live streaming sporting events for free, or sites that offer instant riches via online casinos.
Finally, for the ultimate protection, use a virtual private network. A VPN is a layer of protection between your devices and the internet. It hides your IP address and your location. It also encrypts your data after it leaves your device, and travels to whatever website you’re visiting.
Most importantly, when you are not at home or at work, and you’re using public Wi-Fi, a VPN provides an important layer of security. We recommend using our sponsor, ExpressVPN. Get an extra 3 months free of ExpressVPN when you sign up at ExpressVPN.com/Kim