The Threat of Spyware

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The Threat of Spyware

TB 133 – Wed – Wade Schlueter

August 18, 2009


Spyware is a growing threat to the computer industry, as a way to compromise data security and deliver targeted advertisements to users. Because of the nature of spyware, it is a money-driven threat which will spur more spyware to come out. Understanding how spyware came to be, types of spyware, how it proliferates, and the costs incurred will help people understand the threat so it is fought with expediency.

The Threat of Spyware

Spyware as we know it today is a pervasive force. More people are afraid to clicks on links they don’t know, or they unwittingly surf blindly into the danger zones of the internet. It is becoming a more commonplace problem than even viruses themselves as the spyware market is driven by money, because of its ability to target users with advertisements, key loggers, false warning messages, monitored surfing habits, and various other mal-intended goals. Yet, there are many people who do not fully understand the risk spyware poses to our wallets and the economy. But if we understand the history of spyware, the various types of spyware, the proliferation of such programs, and the effects of it on the economy as a whole, people can become more educated to avoid this cost-inducing nightmare.

The initial use of the word spyware first appeared in the mid-1990s.

It popped up on Usenet (a distributed Internet discussion system in which users post e-mail like messages) in an article aimed at Microsoft's business model. In the years that followed though, spyware often referred to 'snoop equipment' such as tiny, hidden cameras. It re-appeared in a news release for a personal firewall product in early 2000, marking the beginning of the modern usage of the word.

In 1999, Steve Gibson of Gibson Research detected advertising software on his computer and suspected it was actually stealing his confidential information. The so-called adware had been covertly installed and was difficult to remove, so he decided to counter-attack and develop the first ever anti-spyware program, OptOut. (Lavasoft)

Since then, spyware has come in all sorts of forms, like being bundled with other software, tracking cookies from websites, key loggers that can steal your account information, scareware, ransomware, droneware (programs that make computers part of bot-nets), system hijackers, brute-force password discovery programs, password crackers, and many others we have yet to see. CoolWebSearch, Vundo, Smifraud, Spywarebot, and Adware 2008 are just a few of the hundreds of thousands of spyware programs out there. But to really understand why all of these things are really bad, one must understand just what these programs are set out to accomplish.

Spyware programs, for example, are designed to do just what the name implies, spy on you while surfing the internet. Some of them merely gather information to deliver ads that are more targeted to the things you enjoy, while others can take an image of your screen and send it off to a remote user. If you aren’t worried yet, you should be because another category of spyware is key loggers. They copy the keys you type, including any web banking or other services online that a user does (Anti-Spyware Coalition). Cookies are related to spyware because of their tracking capability, which are typically allowed to some degree by your browser so that some websites can function as intended. But spying is not all spyware does, as it is defined to be: “technologies [that are] deployed without appropriate user consent and/or implemented in ways that impair user control over material changes that affect their user experience, privacy, or system security” (Anti-Spyware Coalition).

So it seems that something like scareware would also fall into the category of spyware because of its difficulty to be removed. But while spyware tries to get your credit card information, online banking info, or surfing habits, scareware tries to get your money by making you believe your system is infected with viruses which can only be fixed after paying the company to do so. Of course, once paid for the program stays on your computer, cannot be removed through normal means, and fixes absolutely nothing (which there were more than likely, no problems to begin with). Ransomware on the other hand, takes it a step further by encrypting your personal files. Of course, this means the files cannot be opened unless you pay a fee to get them decrypted by the same program that encrypted them in the first place (hpHosts).

Another type of spyware program that is downloaded without your knowledge is “joke programs.” Two of which I’ve personally seen change a computer’s screensaver to have bugs start eating away at the screen. Another makes you believe your computer has suffered a blue screen of death which then reboots afterwards, that is, until you move the mouse. These programs cannot be uninstalled in a normal fashion either, and are thus considered under the generalized term of spyware. Other types of malware (which is also another term for spyware) include hijacking programs, which change system settings, prevent the user from going to websites they intend to go to, and also undo changes done by the user (for attempting to remove the program) upon system restart. Rootkits are even more malicious as they are not visible to the common user, by having administrative privileges and executes in a manner to stay hidden from spyware and virus detection programs (Anti-Spyware Coalition). But the type of program that has come to influence the way we use the web that we can see for ourselves has yet to be unveiled, which is droneware. Droneware is a type of program that makes your computer work as part of a single entity to attack large companies and overwhelm their systems, which can include making massive numbers of accounts on websites, Denial of Service attacks, or other purposes. As a result, websites have developed methods to ensure a live human being is creating the account and not a drone computer (Anti-Spyware Coalition). Social networking websites are a prime example of how people can become infected by spyware, droneware, and the like.

Thus social networking websites have since become a target of spyware, with which cases have shown up of hijacked accounts that have been taken over by a bot. The bot then proceeds to send messages to friends of the hijacked user telling them to check out some funny video which actually infects them. This doesn’t even consider that the web isn’t mainly accessible through just laptops and desktops anymore. Smart cell phones have entered the technological realm, and “nearly one out of every 63 smartphones powered by the Symbian operating system is infected with some form of malware” (SMobile, Inc). And such smart phones are on the rise in the foreseeable future, with the capability to play music, keep us connected to the World Wide Web, friends, family, and work; smart phones aren’t going to die. Other methods of infection include pop ups telling the user that they are infected, spam e-mail, pornographic websites, “supposed” required video codecs to download, drive-by-downloads (done without user consent), self-proliferating programs, greeting cards, bundled with “free” programs, torrent downloads (with viruses/malware inside), downloader programs, legitimate websites that have been hacked, browser plug-ins (including ActiveX controls), browser toolbars, vulnerable ports, and other various other methods.

Spyware unfortunately isn’t limited to just people with nothing better to do than ruin our computers in countless ways. In 2005, Sony got in trouble for putting software with its CD players that limits CD burning to prevent copyright infringement, which also made user’s computers more vulnerable to hacking (Houston Chronicle). The software was also damaging when users attempted to remove the software themselves. Sony paid California and Texas both $750,000 in civil penalties and costs over the lawsuit (Houston Chronicle). And recently as July this year, Etisalat (a company in the Middle East which is a network carried for R.I.M.) urged Blackberry users to update with a patch that would supposedly improve network connectivity. Rather, users and the company Research in Motion which makes the Blackberry found out the patch copied e-mails and sent them to Etisalat instead (ProQuest Newsstand). Etisalat provided software to remove the patch, though continued its claims that the software was not intended for spying even though Research in Motion and Blackberry users claimed otherwise (ProQuest Newsstand). So whether the infections spread through social networking sites online, through our phone, or our home computer, it’s something we’ll have to deal with as part of the growing threat to computing.

“Spyware and phishing are quickly becoming the most costly online threats for organizations across all industries. In fact, by 2010, 70% of all IT security incidents will be spyware-related” (TechRepublic). In September of 2008, statistics showed that “1 in 14 people had serious problems” with spyware, and that “556,000 households had to replace computers in the past six months” (The State of the Net 2008). Total costs incurred were estimated to be $3.6 billion dollars because of spyware related issues in 2008 (The State of the Net 2008). In 2009, the number of people infected increased to 1 in 12 people (The State of the Net 2009). It’s obvious that spyware poses a serious problem in terms of security, money loss through privacy invasion, and money loss to fix spyware issues. Without free or paid programs like Spybot: Search and Destroy, Malwarebyte’s AntiMalware, Ad-Aware Anniversary Edition, Webroot’s Spysweeper, and many other programs to remove spyware, the issue will only worsen. Yet only understanding the history, types, proliferation, and costs of spyware is not all the necessary tools to combat spyware. Knowing these things builds a foundation for an evolving threat which changes all the time, which users must be aware of certain tricks to know what to expect as a threat as new tricks surface.

Anti-Spyware Coalition. (2007) Glossary. (Retrieved August 18, 2009) (2008, September) State of the Net 2008. (Retrieved August 18, 2009) (2009, June) State of the Net 2009. (Retrieved August 18, 2009)

EXCLUSIVE: BlackBerry patch was not for spying, claims Etisalat. (2009, July 23). Retrieved August 19, 2009, from ProQuest Newsstand. (Document ID: 1800513191)

Hiding spyware on CDs to cost Sony $1.5 million / In settling suits with California and Texas, company also will pay for computer damage: [3 STAR, 0 Edition]. (2006, December 20). Houston Chronicle, p. 4. Retrieved August 19, 2009, from ProQuest Newsstand. (Document ID: 1183714901).

hpHosts. (Written 2009, March 19). FileFix Pro 2009: Ransomware makes a comeback. Blog posted to:
Lavasoft. (Date of publication unknown) The History of Spyware. (Retrieved August 18, 2009)
SMobile, Inc.; One in 63 Smartphones Infected by Mobile Spyware and Malware. (2009, August). Computer Weekly News. Retrieved August 18, 2009, from ProQuest Computing. (Document ID: 1817971881).

TechRepublic. (2009, Jan) Are Spyware and Phishing Secretly Compromising Your Network? (Retrieved August 18, 2009)

Author Notes:

Spywarebot is NOT Spybot: Search and Destroy. The same goes for Adware 2008 and Ad-Aware 2008 or Ad-Aware 2008. Quite a bit of the knowledge of Spyware in this essay is based upon my own personal knowledge of the rising threat.
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