What is Spyware? - Definition & Types

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  • 0:00 What Is Spyware
  • 0:33 Examples of Spyware
  • 2:53 Sources, Symptoms & Prevention
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Nott

Christopher has taught college level information technology and IT security, has a master's degree in Information Security, and holds numerous industry certifications.

Today, we do almost everything online. We socialize, we pay our bills, and even do our banking. So, if someone were to gain access to our computer, they would have access to all of our most sensitive data. This is the goal of spyware.

What Is Spyware?

Today we hear about all types of purpose-built malware. Perhaps the most dangerous is spyware. Spyware is malicious software that, once installed on your computer, steals your information and sends it to a third party. It's called spyware because, like a spy hiding in the shadows recording your every movement, spyware hides on your computer recording your personal information and sending it covertly to the attacker. Let's look at some of the common ways spyware steals your information.

Examples of Spyware

A keylogger is software that records every keystroke. Every key pressed is written to a file stored somewhere on the infected computer. Keyloggers record every browser address, every e-mail, every username, and every password, including the information used to log into your computer. Everything you type on the keyboard, including special keys, like backspace or delete, is put into a file that, at some predetermined point, is sent to the spy. Keyloggers also exist as hardware devices that may be connected to a computer. These hardware devices serve the same purpose as the software keylogger, but, since it is a physical device, it's not normally considered spyware.

Banks and other high-security institutions got wise to the keylogger problem a long time ago and began implementing other, non-keystroke security measures, like requiring users to identify a pre-selected image. Likewise, spyware creators evolved their software to capture the screen. Like taking a screenshot, some spyware has the ability to capture whatever is on the screen as an image and send that back to the attacker. Some spyware only does this for certain events, whereas some does it every few minutes, hoping to catch some sensitive information.

Browser cookies, or small text files left by certain websites to record personalization or browsing history, may contain sensitive personal information that would allow an attacker to pretend to be you on a website. Spyware may read these small text files if they're not protected and send this sensitive data back to the attacker.

Some spyware may covertly activate the camera and/or audio recording devices attached to the computer. The input from these devices may be streamed to an attacker or recorded locally and downloaded either on demand or at specific intervals. In recent months we've seen arrests of hackers who have used this type of spyware to record infected users in compromising positions, then use those recordings to blackmail the user. This type of spyware may also be used to collect competitive intelligence from large companies. So prevalent is this type of spyware that recent interviews and photos of social media mogul Mark Zuckerberg revealed that his laptop has black tape covering the webcam and audio-in ports of his computers, just for this reason.

Sources, Symptoms, & Prevention

As with any malware, spyware may be delivered in any number of ways. Normally spyware is disguised as any type of harmless software that a user may download from the Internet or receive in an e-mail. It may be bundled with software installed voluntarily, or it may be hidden in other software, like a Trojan horse virus. Bit Torrent, Weather Bug, and nearly all peer-to-peer file-sharing software or browser toolbar add-ins have been known to contain some form of spyware. While these are common sources, any software may be used to transmit spyware.

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