What Is Spyware? The Dangers of Spyware

Spyware is software that is downloaded onto your computer to track your activities without your knowledge. This information is then sent to a remote source.

Most of the time spyware is used to monitor your internet surfing habits, and this information is used in conjunction with adware to target specific advertisements to your tastes. However, spyware can be used to monitor much more than just surfing habits. Depending on the purposes of its creator, spyware can monitor and gather information about:

  • Email addresses
  • Passwords
  • Credit card numbers
  • Keystrokes
  • Chat programs
  • Word processor documents
  • Web pages visited
  • Download habits
  • Cookies (little packets of information stored in your internet browser to identify you to websites that you visit)
  • Anything on the hard drive

Because spyware can gather so much information about you and send it to another source without you even knowing what's happening, spyware is a huge privacy and security threat. In the wrong hands, spyware can be used to take someone's personal information for the purposes of identity theft or fraud. Information about you gathered by spyware can even be sold by the spyware creator to third parties. The most concerning part about this is that you have no control over what the spyware monitors or where the information goes. Because of this, many people choose to remove spyware from their computers and take actions to prevent spyware from getting onto their computers in the future.

How Does Spyware Get Onto My Computer?

Spyware typically finds its way onto your computer when you download other programs, mainly freeware (free software, often for trial purposes). This is called bundling - basically the spyware producers pay the freeware producers to include the spyware in their products. This helps finance the freeware that you download so that you don't have to pay for it.

When you download your freeware, the spyware application that you're also downloading may be mentioned in the licensing agreement. The spyware company is counting on you to click "Ok" without really reading the agreement, but if you do, the spyware installation will be mentioned in very hard to understand jargon so you may not realize that spyware is being added. Sometimes the spyware is not even mentioned in the agreement, in which case even if you read it, you will not be aware of the spyware.

Spyware can also be installed on your computer just by visiting certain sites. You may be prompted to download a certain application to see the site properly, to view a greeting card, to watch a video or hear a song on the site, etc. But really the application could have nothing to do with what the site says its purpose is - it could be spyware instead.

Another trick spyware makers use to get you to download their spyware is through ActiveX controls (simple programs that run in your internet browser). When these start to load, your browser will ask if you want to install. If you hit "No" this is only good for the page you are on. Every time you load a new page, your browser will ask you again. Lots of people give up and just click "Yes" after this happens a few times. Little do they know, they are agreeing to spyware.

Wanted Spyware

You may actually choose to install a spyware onto your computer for your own use. This may be used as a surveillance tool if you have children or employees to track what goes on on a computer when you're not around. This type of spyware can be bought and installed like any other software, and will track things like websites visited, programs used, keyboard stokes, etc. for your reference later. When used as a surveillance tool, the data from this type of spyware is not sent anywhere, but it can be referenced from the same computer later by parents and employers to check up on other user's activities.

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Spyware has many ways of getting onto your computer, such as:

When you download programs - particularly freeware, or peer-to-peer sharing programs.

More covertly, spyware can install itself just by you visiting certain sites, by prompting you to download an application to see the site properly.

ActiveX controls. These pesky spyware makers will prompt you to install themselves while using your Internet browser