Spyware« Back to Glossary Index
Spyware is any program that installs itself onto your computer with the intent to spy on your activity. This can be recording your online searching habits, or whatever you type on your keyboard.
Spyware is software that aims to gather information about a person or organization without their knowledge and that may send such information to another entity without the consumer's consent, or that asserts control over a computer without the consumer's knowledge.
"Spyware" is mostly classified into four types: system monitors, trojans, adware, and tracking cookies. Spyware is mostly used for the purposes of tracking and storing Internet users' movements on the Web and serving up pop-up ads to Internet users.
Whenever spyware is used for malicious purposes, its presence is typically hidden from the user and can be difficult to detect. Some spyware, such as keyloggers, may be installed by the owner of a shared, corporate, or public computer intentionally in order to monitor users.
While the term spyware suggests software that monitors a user's computing, the functions of spyware can extend beyond simple monitoring. Spyware can collect almost any type of data, including personal information like internet surfing habits, user logins, and bank or credit account information. Spyware can also interfere with user control of a computer by installing additional software or redirecting web browsers. Some spyware can change computer settings, which can result in slow Internet connection speeds, un-authorized changes in browser settings, or changes to software settings.
Sometimes, spyware is included along with genuine software, and may come from a malicious website or may have been added to the intentional functionality of genuine software (see the paragraph about Facebook below). In response to the emergence of spyware, a small industry has sprung up dealing in anti-spyware software. Running anti-spyware software has become a widely recognized element of computer security practices, especially for computers running Microsoft Windows. A number of jurisdictions have passed anti-spyware laws, which usually target any software that is surreptitiously installed to control a user's computer.
In German-speaking countries, spyware used or made by the government is called govware by computer experts (in common parlance: Regierungstrojaner, literally 'Government Trojan'). Govware is typically a trojan horse software used to intercept communications from the target computer. Some countries like Switzerland and Germany have a legal framework governing the use of such software. In the US, the term policeware has been used for similar purposes.
Use of the term "spyware" has eventually declined as the practice of tracking users has been pushed ever further into the mainstream by major websites and data mining companies; these generally break no known laws and compel users to be tracked, not by fraudulent practices per se, but by the default settings created for users and the language of terms-of-service agreements. As one documented example, on March 7, 2011, CBS/Cnet News reported on a Wall Street Journal analysis revealing the practice of Facebook and other websites of tracking users' browsing activity, linked to their identity, far beyond users' visit and activity within the Facebook site itself. The report stated "Here's how it works. You go to Facebook, you log in, you spend some time there, and then ... you move on without logging out. Let's say the next site you go to is New York Times. Those buttons, without you clicking on them, have just reported back to Facebook and Twitter that you went there and also your identity within those accounts. Let's say you moved on to something like a site about depression. This one also has a tweet button, a Google widget, and those, too, can report back who you are and that you went there." The WSJ analysis was researched by Brian Kennish, founder of Disconnect, Inc.