Spyware: Fact and Fiction

Here's what you need to know about spyware, including why
we don't sell it

The Spyware That Didn't Love Me

Spies hold an important yet conflicted place in our culture. On one hand, professional spies are cool, world-traveling secret agents; but on the other, amateur spies getting caught surveilling someone they shouldn't can land in prison (or be brandished a "peeping tom" or worse). This negative connotation also applies to spyware, a form of invasive software with bad intentions.

In this piece, we'll be discussing the perils of spyware, what you can do to get rid of it, and the distinction between the monitoring software we sell and invasive spyware that can damage your computer.

What Is Spyware?

First and foremost, it's important to make one clear distinction: spyware is not a computer virus. Where a computer virus's main motivation is to infect as many computers as possible, spyware is designed to target only the computer that has inadvertently downloaded it.

Some telltale signs that you've got spyware on your computer:

  • Your PC is running significantly slower than usual.
  • You're burdened with unnecessary toolbars and add-ons to your web browser.
  • When you attempt to surf the web you're bombarded with countless pop-ups that make browsing nearly impossible.

For most of its existence, spyware has been relegated to PC users; the invasive software tends to lend itself well to the Windows operating system, and it would often exploit many download flaws in the Internet Explorer browser. In recent years, however, vulnerabilities in the Mac OS have presented themselves; and while not as pervasive as Windows infections, case of spyware on Macs do exis

Spyware can end up on your computer in a number of ways. Most often, you get it because you download or install something on your computer without fully vetting the program. For example, let's say you download a game from an untrusted site. The game may download fine, and you'll be able to play it without any kind of noticeable ulterior motive, but after you install the software, there's an additional program that installs along with it. After the game is installed on your computer you notice that you're getting significantly more pop-up ads than usual, and your computer is running more slowly. The spyware has invaded your PC along with a seemingly innocuous download. While a game is just one example, spyware can tack itself onto illegally downloaded music and movie files or other software. What's worse, sometimes spyware can wind up on your computer in the form of anti-spyware software

In addition to you physically downloading spyware, it can hide itself on untrusted websites and wind up on your computer without you ever being alerted to its presence. This type of spyware exists in the code of websites or emails and exploits vulnerabilities in your browser (especially Internet Explorer) to download and install on your computer without generating a notification or requiring you to take part in the download.

As previously stated, spyware works differently than a virus because it doesn't want to infect other computers, but spyware can be even more dangerous, because it attaches itself to everything you do on your computer. The main goal of spyware is to gather information. The software wants to know everything you're doing online: every site you visit, every click you make, every form you fill out, in order to not only mine your data for potentially digital life-threatening purposes but also to provide advertisers (whom you may not want to divulge this information to) with ways to target your activity. By harvesting information such as form data, spyware can potentially lead to identity theft. Your computer begins running slowly when spyware has infected it, because the software is running constantly, hogging your computer's RAM and overburdening it with programs you don't even know you're running. It's like attempting to run a marathon without realizing that the ground beneath your feet is actually working in your opposite direction.

Some other types of spyware can alter your computer's settings. For example, the software can be programmed to change your dial-up settings (if you still use dial-up) so your modem dials out to expensive payphone numbers. Other spyware can alter your firewall settings to make it easier for other spyware programs to infect your computer.

While spyware can easily wind up on your computer, getting rid of it can be just as easy. If you're worried that your computer may be infected, check out this brief list of top anti-spyware programs that can help clean out your computer.

What Makes Monitoring Software Different?

Generally speaking, spyware is illegal. There are a number of states that have enacted specific legislation to ban and criminalize its use; but of course, enforcement is not always tenable. On a Federal level, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, while never specifically mentioning spyware, prohibits anyone from installing software without the computer owner's knowledge or consent.

This final point is what makes the cell phone and PC monitoring software we sell at BrickHouse Security different from spyware. We offer a wide array of monitoring tools that give you a window into all of the activity on a cell phone or PC. But our products are only to be used on computers you own. If you're looking to track your employees' internet usage, or you're trying to find out if your daughter is being taken advantage of online, and all of this activity is taking place on a PC you own, it is fully within your rights to monitor that activity. While in practice much of the software we sell functions similarly to spyware, the motives are never to offer information to outside companies, nor are they downloaded without the consent or knowledge of the computer's owner. Our software is designed to allow a computer's owner to know everything that is happening only on his or her computer.