Spyware is any software that tracks a computer user's activity and sends that information to another entity without the user's knowledge or consent.
Spyware is a class of software that is often malicious and includes keystroke logging applications (keyloggers), webcam hijacking applications, screenshot capturing applications, browser activity tracking programs, and programs that mine for financial information or e-mail addresses. What all spyware programs have in common is that they monitor some aspect of a computer user's activity without their knowledge, and then send the information they glean to another entity who has something to gain by using the stolen information.
Not all spyware is malicious. The most common type of potentially desirable spyware is a website tracking cookie, which is a necessary part of many legitimate website visitor statistics programs and e-commerce website shopping carts. Many organizations choose to install spyware on their computers to keep track of employee activity on company equipment. In addition, while the legality of such actions is in question in many cases, law enforcement organizations are also in on the fun and use spyware to keep an eye out for illegal activity.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the different types of spyware?
There are many different types of spyware. According to Norton Security, the most common types of spyware include:
- Adware: Software that may or may not be malicious (some adware is installed willingly), that keeps on eye on browser activity and uses pop-up ads to try and sell products and services related to the user's browsing practices.
- Tracking: Tracking cookies are used for both legitimate and nefarious purposes. When used to provide a basic website function, such as e-commerce shopping cart functionality, tracking cookies are useful. However, when they continue to track a user after the user has left the site, and possibly even sell the resulting data to advertisers, a line has been crossed.
- Keyloggers: These applications may be installed inadvertently by an unsuspecting user, or they may be preinstalled on company-owned computers. In either case, the result is that all keystrokes are recorded, and the record sent back to the hacker or company that installed the application.
What are spyware authors hoping to gain by distributing spyware?
In most cases, financial gain is the ultimate goal that spyware distributors have in mind. The most common use of spyware is to track a user's browsing activity and to use that information to try and sell products and services to the user. Less commonly, spyware may be used to steal account credentials and sensitive personal and financial information in order to commit identity theft.
Of course, in the case of spyware being installed on a company's computers by the company itself, the goal is to keep an eye on how employees are using the company resources.