As we previously discussed, spyware is “any type of software that spies on you by tracking your internet search history, capturing passwords/logins, or logging your keystrokes (also called a “keylogger”). Some forms of spyware tie into adware to tailor themselves to a given user’s habits. Particularly nefarious types may take over a user’s webcam and/or microphone.” That seems quite frightening and to a degree—it is. Spyware has wormed its way (no pun intended) into our lives and everyday conversation. From government- or corporation-sanctioned software to code created by criminals and hackers, spyware is everywhere. But what is it exactly? At its core, spyware is essentially a way to track and store digital data. What it tracks and how it stores data can vary in a bewildering number of ways.

Of the types of malware discussed so far, adware, browser hijackers and rootkits are sometimes classified as spyware. Other types include system monitors (software designed to spy on what you are doing on your computer) and keyloggers (software that observes your key strokes and other user input). These types of spyware are often illegal, but some may be the product of a government (nicknamed “govware” in common parlance).

Additionally, spyware isn’t always bad. For example, internet cookies are technically a form a spyware (they track your access to a specific site and possibly store data for that site) and are used every day by web browsers. A lesser known, but similar, type of code is called a “web beacon.” This allows a website (such as Facebook, Amazon, or Google) to know when you’ve access the site. In such a case, it could allow for page analytics (how often a site is accessed, by who, what their IP address is, etc.) or targeted advertising to recommend other pages, services, or goods you may also be interested in.

Even corporations may create spyware to track unauthorized copies of their intellectual property (often videogames or multimedia content such as movies or music) and/or secure their digital rights (aka DRM). You probably are unware it’s even installed on your computer as it is often part of the End User License Agreement (EULA). For example, Blizzard Entertainment has a program called the “warden client” which monitors your computer for unauthorized copies of their games and software (like bots) that allow you to “cheat” or alter gameplay somehow.

This means, in general, spyware isn’t always bad. It can make your everyday life on the internet easier. It’s the spyware that puts the mal in malware that is dangerous. Computers infected by spyware can quickly compromise your personal data, secure files, or activate peripherals like webcams, GPS, and so on.

Stay tuned to our next post where we talk about what steps you can take to protect yourself from spyware and best practices for avoiding infection in the first place.