Spyware is computer software that is installed surreptitiously on a personal computer to intercept or take partial control over the user's interaction with the computer, without the user's informed consent.
While the term spyware suggests software that secretly monitors the user's behavior, the functions of spyware extend well beyond simple monitoring. Spyware programs can collect various types of personal information, such as Internet surfing habit, sites that have been visited, but can also interfere with user control of the computer in other ways, such as installing additional software, redirecting Web browser activity, accessing websites blindly that will cause more harmful viruses, or diverting advertising revenue to a third party. Spyware can even change computer settings, resulting in slow connection speeds, different home pages, and loss of Internet or other programs. In an attempt to increase the understanding of spyware, a more formal classification of its included software types is captured under the term privacy-invasive software.
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 best practices for Microsoft Windows desktop computers. A number of jurisdictions have passed anti-spyware laws, which usually target any software that is surreptitiously installed to control a user's computer.
Many programmers and some commercial firms have released products designed to remove or block spyware. Steve Gibson's OptOut pioneered a growing category. Programs such as Lavasoft's Ad-Aware SE and Patrick Kolla's Spybot - Search & Destroy rapidly gained popularity as effective tools to remove, and in some cases intercept, spyware programs. More recently Microsoft acquired the GIANT AntiSpyware software, rebranding it as Windows AntiSpyware beta and releasing it as a free download for Genuine Windows XP and Windows 2003 users. In 2006, Microsoft renamed the beta software to Windows Defender, and it was released as a free download in October 2006. Microsoft currently ships the product for free with Windows Vista. Other well-known commercial anti-spyware products include:
- PC Tools's Spyware Doctor
- Sunbelt Software's Counterspy
- Trend Micro's HijackThis
- Webroot Software's Spy Sweeper
- ParetoLogic's Anti-Spyware and XoftSpy SE
Major anti-virus firms such as Symantec, McAfee and Sophos have come later to the table, adding anti-spyware features to their existing anti-virus products. Early on, anti-virus firms expressed reluctance to add anti-spyware functions, citing lawsuits brought by spyware authors against the authors of web sites and programs which described their products as "spyware". However, recent versions of these major firms' home and business anti-virus products do include anti-spyware functions, albeit treated differently from viruses. Symantec Anti-Virus, for instance, categorizes spyware programs as "extended threats" and now offers real-time protection from them (as it does for viruses).
Recently, the anti-virus company Grisoft, creator of AVG Anti-Virus, acquired anti-spyware firm Ewido Networks, re-labeling their Ewido anti-spyware program as AVG Anti-Spyware Professional Edition. AVG also used this product to add an integrated anti-spyware solution to some versions of the AVG Anti-Virus family of products, plus made a freeware AVG Anti-Spyware Free Edition available for private and non-commercial use. This shows a trend by anti virus companies to launch a dedicated solution to spyware and malware. Zone Labs, creator of Zone Alarm firewall have also released an anti-spyware program.
Anti-spyware programs can combat spyware in two ways:
- 1. They can provide real time protection against the installation of spyware software on your computer. This type of spyware protection works the same way as that of anti-virus protection in that the anti-spyware software scans all incoming network data for spyware software and blocks any threats it comes across.
- 2. Anti-spyware software programs can be used solely for detection and removal of spyware software that has already been installed onto your computer. This type of spyware protection is normally much easier to use and more popular. With this spyware protection software you can schedule weekly, daily, or monthly scans of your computer to detect and remove any spyware software that has been installed on your computer. This type of anti-spyware software scans the contents of the windows registry, operating system files, and installed programs on your computer and will provide a list of any threats found, allowing you to choose what you want to delete and what you want to keep.
Such programs inspect the contents of the Windows registry, the operating system files, and installed programs, and remove files and entries which match a list of known spyware components. Real-time protection from spyware works identically to real-time anti-virus protection: the software scans disk files at download time, and blocks the activity of components known to represent spyware. In some cases, it may also intercept attempts to install start-up items or to modify browser settings. Because many spyware and adware are installed as a result of browser exploits or user error, using security software (some of which are antispyware, though many are not) to sandbox browsers can also be effective to help restrict any damage done.
Earlier versions of anti-spyware programs focused chiefly on detection and removal. Javacool Software's SpywareBlaster, one of the first to offer real-time protection, blocked the installation of ActiveX-based and other spyware programs.
Like most anti-virus software, many anti-spyware/adware tools require a frequently-updated database of threats. As new spyware programs are released, anti-spyware developers discover and evaluate them, making "signatures" or "definitions" which allow the software to detect and remove the spyware. As a result, anti-spyware software is of limited usefulness without a regular source of updates. Some vendors provide a subscription-based update service, while others provide updates free. Updates may be installed automatically on a schedule or before doing a scan, or may be done manually.
Not all programs rely on updated definitions. Some programs rely partly (for instance many antispyware programs such as Windows Defender, Spybot's TeaTimer and Spysweeper) or fully (programs falling under the class of Hips such as BillP's WinPatrol) on historical observation. They watch certain configuration parameters (such as certain portions of the Windows registry or browser configuration) and report any change to the user, without judgment or recommendation. While they do not rely on updated definitions, which may allow them to spot newer spyware, they can offer no guidance. The user is left to determine "what did I just do, and is this configuration change appropriate?"
Windows Defender's Spynet attempts to alleviate this through offering a community to share information, which helps guide both users, who can look at decisions made by others, and analysts, who can spot fast-spreading spyware. A popular generic spyware removal tool used by those with a certain degree of expertise is HijackThis, which scans certain areas of the Windows OS where spyware often resides and presents a list with items to delete manually. As most of the items are legitimate windows files/registry entries it is advised for those who are less knowledgeable on this subject to post a HijackThis log on the numerous antispyware sites and let the experts decide what to delete.
If a spyware program is not blocked and manages to get itself installed, it may resist attempts to terminate or uninstall it. Some programs work in pairs: when an anti-spyware scanner (or the user) terminates one running process, the other one respawns the killed program. Likewise, some spyware will detect attempts to remove registry keys and immediately add them again. Usually, booting the infected computer in safe mode allows an anti-spyware program a better chance of removing persistent spyware. Killing the process tree can also work.
A new breed of spyware (Look2Me spyware by NicTechNetworks is a good example) is starting to hide inside system-critical processes and start up even in safe mode. With no process to terminate they are harder to detect and remove. Sometimes they do not even leave any on-disk signatures. Rootkit technology is also seeing increasing use, as is the use of NTFS alternate data streams. Newer spyware programs also have specific countermeasures against well known anti-malware products and may prevent them from running or being installed, or even uninstall them. An example of one that uses all three methods is Gromozon, a new breed of malware. It uses alternate data streams to hide. A rootkit hides it even from alternate data streams scanners and actively stops popular rootkit scanners from running.