CYBER SECURITY | 6 MIN READ
Spyware has malicious intent, which is why individuals and businesses alike should know how it works and what threats it poses if they wish to avoid becoming a victim. So what exactly is spyware and how does it work? Keep reading to find out as well as learn some tips on protecting your network.
[Quick Summary]: Spyware is a type of malware designed to spy on an unknowing victim and collect their information. It logs information such as your passwords, credit card numbers, and browsing history.
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What is Spyware?
Is it tough to talk about spyware without discussing the umbrella category it falls under, which is malware. Malware is any type of software written with malicious intent, which can range from data theft, computer damage, or general privacy invasion.
Malware tends to be spread when a suspicious link or download is opened by a victim. Ranging anywhere from viruses to ransomware, malware is an umbrella term that encompasses many types.
Spyware is a type of malware designed to spy on an unknowing victim and collect their information. It logs information such as your passwords, credit card numbers, and browsing history.
Once this information is taken, harmful consequences such as identity theft and credit card fraud can ensue.
How Does Spyware Pose a Threat to Businesses?
While many people see spyware as a threat to individuals, it can also pose threats to the security of company data as well.
For instance, since spyware can be used to open a hole in your firewall to let other malware in, if an employee accidentally downloads spyware, it can carry out the same task and let other malware into a business' network, which can lead to a host of negative consequences such as data breaches.
Since spyware is also used to collect data on account logins and credit card information, this can pose a security problem when employees make purchases online using company cards or when they log into sensitive company accounts.Businesses looking to better secure their data shouldn't overlook the potential threats that spyware can pose.
How Does it Work?
Spyware can infiltrate your computer in a variety of ways, including hiding within malicious pop-ups, software downloads, email attachments, or pirated movies/music.
Once spyware infiltrates your computer, it can carry out a host of actions, including:
- Running an application that generates numerous pop-up ads, which can negatively effect the usability of your browser
- Re-directing your Internet searches as it sees fit, effectively rendering your search engines useless
- Recording your actions such as clicks, searches, and in particularly malicious situations, your account logins and credit card information
- Changing your firewall settings to allow more malicious software in
- Recognizing and blocking attempts to remove it
Other Types of Malware
Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts personal or company data and holds it for ransom. Hackers then will threaten to publish, destroy or sell the information on the dark web if their monetary demands are not met.
Once your device is infected with ransomware, some or all of the files on it are encrypted, making them inaccessible or un-readable by the victim.
To unlock their files, a victim must first pay the hacker a ransom, which is usually demanded in the form of Bitcoin, an online e-currency that facilitates anonymous payments. As of recently, ransomware has been used to target large organizations such as the City of Atlanta.
RELATED: How Does Ransomware Work? [Infographic]
Viruses function like their biological counterparts by latching onto "clean files" in your computer, infecting those, and then moving onto the next.
Computer viruses cannot be spread without human interaction, which means that, for instance, if a file containing a virus was on your computer, your computer wouldn't become infected unless you opened the file.
Viruses can quickly spread to other computers when people unknowingly share virus-loaded files to each other.
A worm is a type of virus, but the difference is that worms can spread without any human action needed. Worms can quickly multiply and spread, which can magnify the damage done. For instance, a worm could make thousands of copies of itself and send those copies to everyone in your contact list.
Within a company, worms can be especially devastating for how quickly they can spread from computer to computer in a network since all the computers are inter-connected.
Similar to a robots, bots are automated processes designed to infect a victim's device and connect these infected devices back to a central system called a botnet.
Like worms, bots can self-reproduce, but bots are more advanced because they can capture more information, such as keystrokes and passwords. Bots can also open back doors to a network by creating security holes that let other types of malware into a network.
A botnet is a centralized system connected to many infected devices. Once botnets establish a web of connected and infected devices, it can send out broad, "remote control-based" attacks to its entire network.
A Trojan is a program whose purpose is similar to the Trojan horse story from ancient Greece. In the ancient story, the Greeks stuffed a giant wooden horse with soldiers and presented it as an innocent gift to the city of Troy, whom they were at war with.
The city's residents, not knowing about the soldiers in the horse, took the horse inside the city, past its protective walls. Once inside the city, the soldiers jumped out of the horse and stormed the walls from the inside, opening the gates and letting their comrades in to take over the city.
Similar to this story, a Trojan is an innocent-looking program that, when downloaded, opens a virtual "back door" in your device's security, allowing malware to come in and infect it. Like viruses, Trojans require human interaction to spread.
Trojans are also known to wreak havoc on your computer by causing pop-up windows, deleting files, stealing data, etc.
Adware uses information it has collected on you, such as your Internet browsing history, to serve you targeted advertisements. Though adware is relatively harmless, it can be a nuisance because it can slow down your computer or cause a lot of pop-ups ads.
However, by breaking through your security to gather information on you, adware can potentially create a security gap that allows other more harmful versions of malware into your network.
Tips to Protect Your Network
Invest in the Right Software
If you want to invest in a solid foundational malware solution, consider downloading anti-malware and content filtering software. Anti-malware software is designed to recognize and remove malware threats from your network.
One way that anti-malware software recognizes threats is by searching for snippets of code that it deems suspicious. When this code is recognized, the software flags it.
Another way that anti-malware software detects threats is by recognizing code that attempts abnormal behavior. For instance, a snippet of code that attempts to gain administrator rights to your computer without asking for your permission could be flagged.
Different versions of anti-malware software exist for home or business use. Depending on what you need it for, you can tailor anti-malware to fit your needs.
Content and web filtering software can also assist in blocking malware threats. This software can be tailored to restrict Internet access so users cannot use inappropriate websites that may contain malware, such as illegal movie streaming sites.
Educate Employees About Cyber Security
Educating employees about cyber security starting from when they're hired helps to build a company culture around the importance of cyber security. You could have a process as simple as an educational pamphlet that the new hire has to read and take a test about during the first week of their employment.
Creating a monthly company cyber security newsletter can serve as an informative and engaging way to constantly educate your employees about the latest cyber security threats as well as serve as a way to share tips on staying safe online.
Another engaging way to see how educated your employees are about cyber security is to utilize penetration testing. Penetration testing is a fake phishing attack that aims to see which employees fall for the attack by clicking on fake links or downloading fake files.
If employees fall for these phishing attempts then you can send them through cyber security training, again. We recommend conducting these tests quarterly.
Conduct a Network Assessment
To better secure your network, we recommend conducting a thorough audit of your network infrastructure quarterly to identify security gaps and build a roadmap to better network security.
This process, also known as a network assessment, can also identify processes that are putting your business at risk of non-compliance with data privacy regulations. Corporate network assessments involve evaluating:
- Hardware and software settings− Look for any security settings that are inefficient or processes that could be putting your network at risk
- Security management protocol− If you have internal employees managing your network security, check to identify operational inefficiencies that could possible lead to security threats not being promptly identified and mitigated.
- Backup processes− Determine how often data is backed up, where it is backed up too, and if this process has been automated to remove the possibility of human error.
If you are a business that wishes to conduct a thorough network assessment and doesn't know where to start, a Managed Service Provider can help.
Avoid Suspicious Links and Websites
Many websites can contain malware-ridden links and attachments that one must know how to navigate. Knowing some basic rules about how to safely navigate the Internet can help you avoid having your computer infected with malware.
To start, if a website sounds too good to be true, then you probably shouldn't trust it. For instance, websites offering free tools or software that are usually expensive are likely to contain malware links.
Another way that hackers easily spread malware attacks is through a term called phishing. In a phishing attack, a hacker will email a victim a malware-infected link. These phishing emails will look and feel genuine, tricking many into clicking on the link.
For instance, a hacker trying to access a company's HR portal might email them posing as Microsoft, telling them to click the link to verify their credentials.
If you're wary about trusting a link that seems to be from a company that you have an account with, such as Microsoft, try accessing the web page described in the email by going to the actual website itself without clicking the link.
Cyber attacks can cause network downtime, which costs your company money every minute. They can also cause a host of other problems, ranging from the risk of data breach lawsuits to loss of company reputation if sensitive information is published.
Don't wait until you're attacked to improve your cyber security.
RELATED: Phishing Tips: A Simple Guide to Avoid Malicious Emails
Spyware can post threats to individuals and businesses alike. Understanding what spyware is and how it works is key in preventing it from intruding your network and wreaking havoc.
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