An introduction to Spyware

From the time that computer viruses first appeared in the late 1980’s, there has been a constant battle to defend our computers from malicious attacks and protect our privacy. In recent years the use of Spyware as a means to gather an individual’s personal data has become widespread, representing a serious threat to the personal privacy of computer users around the world.

Most computer users are familiar with the concept of virus.  By definition a virus is designed to maliciously damage data on a computer, self replicate and spread to cause further harm. Unlike a virus, Spyware does not corrupt data on a computer and will generally go undetected by anti-virus software products. Spyware is any unwanted software or technology that gathers information about a person or organization without their knowledge. Spyware may also alter the settings of a computer. Like a Trojan horse; Spyware runs undetected in the background, without the user’s knowledge. Its purpose is to report on the activities and preferences of the user. This information is then transmitted in the background to advertisers or interested parties.  The information that Spyware gathers ranges from fairly innocent (such as the web sites an individual has visited), to potentially dangerous (such as bank account details, or usernames and passwords). Spyware can cause severe privacy problems for an individual whose computer becomes compromised.

Data collection programs that are installed with the user’s knowledge are not considered Spyware if the user knows what data is being collected, and with whom it will be shared. However, Spyware is often installed without the users consent as a software virus, drive-by download or as the result of installing a new program. Many Spyware applications are bundled as hidden components of popular freeware, shareware and commercial products. Spyware can also exist in any form of executable found on web pages including applications, installers, active X, plug-ins, scripts or applets. The most widespread method of installing Spyware is known as a drive-by download.  A drive-by download occurs when the action of visiting a seemingly innocent web page, causes unwanted Spyware to be downloaded and installed on an individuals machine without their permission.

Many types of unwanted and potentially dangerous types of Spyware exist today. The prevalence of Spyware software and technologies increases daily, mirroring the exponential growth and popularity of the internet.  The creators of Spyware cannot ignore the opportunity to gather the personal data and surfing habits of unwitting users. For this reason Spyware will continue to be created in order to influence and manage our behavior, and to further the gains of its creators. As long as our personal Information is worth money, the growth of spyware will continue.