Spyware is any kind of software that collects personal information on your computer, like surfing habits, browsing history, etc. in order to deliver advertisements for products or other services without the users consent.
A brief history of spyware
Spyware first started picking up steam around the year 2000, mainly as software that delivered annoying popup ads while browsing the internet. Since then, it has created two major industries; the companies that deliver spyware for advertising revenue, and the many companies that create spyware removal software, both free and to purchase.
AOL partnered with the National Cyber-Security Alliance in 2005 to conduct a study about spyware, and found that 61 percent of people surveyed had some form of spyware, 92 percent of which didn’t know it was present, and 91 percent of which did not give permission for it to be installed.
While spyware started out as being mildly intrusive, just displaying advertisements and such, spyware has grown into a virus like industry. Spyware these days can changecomputer settings like redirecting web traffic, disabling operating system features, essentially disabling the user’s ability to use the computer properly.
Some spyware today even goes as far as searching for known spyware removal software and removes them upon installation, making their software that much harder to remove.
The spyware threat keeps getting worse
Once the term Spyware was well known, and spyware removal software was more abundant, the spyware industry looked to be stomped out of existence for a short time. But the companies that create spyware started using more advanced techniques to infect their users, and started making their software harder than ever to remove.
Infection can happen many ways now. Spyware can be bundled with any type of other software, and most commonly through software that is “required” to perform some sort of function on a website. For example, you might want to download a file from a website, but in order to do so they require you to use their software to retrieve the file, and by agreeing to their terms of service you are also agreeing to install their bundled spyware.
Spyware can be installed from several other methods as well. Here are some of the most common methods:
- In file sharing networks like Limewire, spyware companies cloak their files to appear like movies or songs, but once you try to play them it installs their software
- Popup windows that claim you are “infected” with spyware and to click on their box to remove it, but what it’s really doing is installing spyware on your system
- Some websites cloak their spyware inside of ActiveX controls (like an embedded movie player), installing their software once you agree to install the ActiveX component
- Toolbars for your internet browser
Some of the nastiest spyware I’ve seen lately is nearly impossible to remove, even with good spyware removal software and a good computer technician. One that I came across recently not only persisted after removal, but Windows essentially stopped functioning entirely after removal was attempted since the files were so extremely embedded into theoperating system.
Back when spyware was first introduced, it wasn’t really that hard to remove if you knew what to look for, like unrecognized programs in the startup section of your registry, etc.
Spyware today is not so easy to remove. Not only are they hidden from your list of installed programs, but even if they are listed, removing from there doesn’t normally get rid of the software. Most of today’s spyware has services that run in the background looking to see if the program is removed or stopped, and reinstalls or starts it back up again if this is detected.
My favorite program for removing spyware is Spybot Search and Destroy. It’s not only free, but it’s very good at its job as well. Spybot doesn’t just remove spyware, it also has features to help block future infections, a feature naturally called “immunization”.
There are a few others I have used in the past as well, like AdAware. Microsoft also has a free product called Windows Defender that features automated scans, and has the abilty to detect spyware and keep it from being installed once installation is detected.
Always do your homework before installing any software that claims to remove spyware, since this is a very popular technique lately to install even more spyware, forcing you to purchase their software to get rid of what they installed in the first place.