There is no such thing as 100% security. No matter how careful you are, there is always some risk that your computer will be compromised by a virus, Trojan or other type of malware. Many people don’t even know their computers are at risk because many of the “security” features built into today’s operating systems are actually hiding many of the threats to your computer. In this article, I’m going to give you a basic understanding of what is happening when you run into one of these types of problems and show you how to stop it without having to reinstall your operating system.
What is Spyware?
Spyware is a category of malware which can be defined as a program or file that is designed to gather information about your computer usage without your knowledge or consent. This can include gathering your credit card details, retrieving your online banking passwords, monitoring your keystrokes, and recording your visits to certain websites. It can also include installing programs on your computer without your knowledge or consent which monitor and collect information about your usage.
Types of Spyware
There are many different types of spyware. The most common types are: Adware, System monitors and tracking, includes webtracking and trojans.
This is the least harmful type of spyware. It is usually installed on your computer without your knowledge as an “add-on” to another program you have purchased.
The purpose of this type of software is to deliver an advertisement when you visit a website. The ad may be displayed at the top or bottom of the page or it may be displayed in a pop-up window.
Sometimes, the ad will appear to be from a trustworthy source such as a search engine or an online news site. Other times, it will look like an e-mail from a friend or relative.
System Monitors Spyware:
This type of software is much more dangerous than adware. It is designed to take complete control of your computer and report back information about what you are doing on a regular basis.
This type of software is often called “system monitoring” software because it is designed to watch over and protect your computer while you are using it.
The name given to this category of software varies depending on the vendor but some common examples are: Killer Software: This is the most aggressive form of system monitoring software. It has the ability to take control of your machine and remove any program or file which is not approved by the vendor.
This type of software is much less aggressive than system monitoring software. It only records your visits to certain websites and it does not have the ability to remove anything from your computer.
The purpose of tracking spyware is to gather information about your online usage so you can be marketed to later. This type of software is often bundled with other types of software such as web browsers.
Symptoms of Spyware
If you suspect you have been infected with spyware, you will first notice a change in the way your computer works. The most common change you will experience is a reduction in the speed at which your computer works.
Another symptom you may experience is your computer “freezing up” or becoming unresponsive to your commands. Yet another symptom you may experience is your computer displaying incorrect or exaggerated error messages.
If you are using an older operating system like Windows 98 or ME, you may also experience a blue screen of death (BSoD) on occasion. If you are using a newer operating system such as Windows 2000, XP, or Vista, you probably won’t experience any of these symptoms.
That’s because these types of problems are usually only experienced by users of older operating systems.
Additionally, by the way, BSoDs are much more likely to be caused by spyware than they are by other factors.
How Spyware Gets Installed
Spyware gets installed in one of two ways:
The most common way this happens is when you download and install something that is supposed to help protect your computer but actually does the opposite.
This is the preferred method of the spyware vendors. They create a “back door” into your computer and install their software automatically whenever you install another piece of software on your computer.
A good example of this is the software distributed by Kazaa. When you first install Kazaa, it asks you to confirm you want to allow it to make automatic updates.
If you say yes, it will then install a small piece of code onto your computer which allows it to check for and download new versions of Kazaa automatically.
How to Detect If You Are Being Watched
There are two main ways you can detect if someone is watching or recording what you are doing on your computer: By using your webcam to take a picture every few seconds and checking it against a recent photo you have saved.
This type of monitoring software will record anything that changes in your computer’s screen and will create a video file with a copy of the original photo.
You can use your anti-virus program to detect this type of software.
However, many of the reputable vendors (including Norton, McAfee and Symantec) do not include this type of software in their product line because it is very difficult for them to detect.
Another way you can detect this type of software is by using your operating system’s built-in “tracer” program.
What To Do If You Are Being Watched
The first thing you should do if you suspect someone is watching or recording what you are doing on your computer is to close all your web browsers. This will stop the person from being able to access the sites you were visiting.
If you use your webcam to take a few seconds’ worth of video every few seconds, you should check the file against the most recent photo you have saved. If there is a change, it means the video file was created while your computer was active and therefore someone was watching or recording what you were doing.
If you use your anti-virus program to detect this type of software, it will tell you who made the change. You can then go to that website and remove whatever it is the person put on your computer.
To sum things up, I would say the main reasons people get spyware are:
- They visit suspect websites;
- They download and run programs without checking their “sources”
- They visit suspect websites or download suspect programs from their “trusted” software sources
By the way, the first two points are actually the same thing. By visiting suspect websites, you are taking a risk of getting infected because there is a good chance those sites contain malware.
If you do decide to visit a suspect website, it is a good idea to use an ad blocker like NoScript with a separate browser (like Firefox) so you won’t be distracted by all the ads while you are visiting the site.
If you do download something, make sure it comes from a reputable source. If you have to ask “Does this come from a trustworthy source? Positively,” then it probably doesn’t.