How Computer Malware and Spyware Works

Malware: it's a nasty normal
Malware: it's a nasty normal. Litavnieks / Getty

What Is Malware and What Does It Do?

Malware is any of a thousand little rogue programs that have become widespread and infectious.  A direct relative of 'viruses', malware programs perform various nefarious actions on your computer, like eavesdropping on your email or tasking your computer to send spam on behalf of criminals. Malware is such a widespread problem, there is still disagreement over what to call it.

'Malware' Includes 'Spyware' and 'Crapware'

Most people historically call these rogue programs "spyware". That name comes from the 1990's where nasty little programs secretly observed and logged your web surfing habits. The spyware problem, however, has now grown into dozens of other malicious formats, including sneakware, adware, keyloggers, browser hijackers, porn servers, trojans, and worms.

Because the spyware problem has mutated so much, we now describe spyware as part of a much larger category of rogue software called 'malware' (malicious software programs).  You will also hear the expression 'crapware', which describe software that no one wants to be installed on their computer.

At its most basic definition, malware is when insidious little software programs covertly install themselves on your computer and then perform secret operations without your permission. Once in place, malware programs may do hundreds of nasty things to your computer.

Malware will log your keystrokes, steal your passwords, observe your browsing choices, spawn pop-up windows, send you targeted email, redirect your web browser to phishing pages, report your personal information to distant servers, and serve up pornography. This malware will operate invisibly, often without displaying itself in your Task Manager.

To top it off, malware usually refuses to be uninstalled through your control panel and requires special tools to delete them from your drive. Yes, this is a direct cousin to viruses, but with a broader portfolio of wicked intentions.

What Does Malware Specifically Do To My Computer?

Malware will perform a variety of nasty activities, ranging from simple email advertising all the way to complex identity-theft and password-stealing. New nasty functions are created every week by malware programmers, but the most common malware functions are:

  1. Malware steals your personal information and address book (identity theft and keystroke-logging).
  2. Malware floods your browser with pop-up advertising.
  3. Malware spams your inbox with advertising email.
  4. Malware slows down your connection.
  5. Malware hijacks your browser and redirects you to an advertising or a phishing con web page.
  6. Malware uses your computer as a secret server to broadcast pornography files.
  7. Malware slows down or crashes your computer

Where Does Malware Come From?

Spyware/malware programs are authored by clever programmers and then delivered to your computer through covert Internet installs. Usually, malware will piggyback on innocent-looking web page components and otherwise-benign software such as game demos, MP3 players, search toolbars, software, free subscriptions, and other things you download from the web.

Subscribing to online services is especially bad for getting malware. In particular, whenever you sign up for a so-called "free" service or install new software, you must accept an "end user license agreement" (EULA). The fine print of the EULA will often include the phrase "the vendor is allowed to install third-party software on your computer". Since most users don't bother to read this EULA fine print, they naively click "accept", and install malware out of sheer ignorance.

What Kind of Personal Information Does Malware Steal?

This varies from the non-confidential to the extremely personal. The malware may simply steal a listing of your MP3s or recent website visits.

Malware may also harvest your email address book. At its very worst, malware will steal your banking PIN, your eBay login, and your Paypal information (aka "keystroke logging" identity theft). Yes, spyware/malware is a very serious Internet problem that threatens everyone's personal privacy, and network administrators everywhere are deeply concerned.

How Do I Protect Myself from this Modern Epidemic of Spyware/Malware?

Answer: Avoiding and destroying spyware is not instant, and it is not a one-time event like an inoculation. Instead, stopping spyware/malware is a long-term game that is exactly like cleaning dirt out of your home. You need constant vigilance and a regular habit of cleaning malware out of your computer every week.

Note: Additionally, as an educated user, you must also adopt a "buyer beware" attitude whenever you install new software from the Net or even from CD...you need to read every end user license agreement on your screen before you click "accept".

Checklist for Detecting and Destroying Malware

Install two or three different anti-spyware programs ("spyware cleaners") on your computer, and update their definition lists regularly. Because every anti-spyware cleaner is imperfect, it is necessary to use combinations of these programs to catch the greatest breadth of malware. Also, the anti-spyware manufacturers regularly add new entries to their "definition" lists, just like anti-virus software. Make sure to keep your spyware cleaners updated with these lists!

ClickHere for 5 Recommended Anti-Spyware Programs

Build a weekly habit of "scan and detect". Like cleaning house, this should be done every few days. At the very least, this should be done whenever you install new software. Many anti-spyware programs can be set to automatically perform scan-and-detect nightly.

Carefully read every EULA (end user license agreement) before clicking "accept". If you see the phrase "3rd-party software may be installed", make sure to follow the software install with a spyware cleaning.

Educate yourself on the latest strains of malware. In particular, start visiting these recommended anti-spyware sites, and update yourself on the latest malicious programs.

Save your data, and backup often! As much as it sounds like broken record preaching, backing-up is how an intelligent user prepares for the worst. Backing up means: keep your original software CDs in a safe accessible place, constantly save copies of your important work files on CD or separate drives, and presume you will actually need them one day. This way, if you ever experience the extreme spyware circumstance of having to reformat your hard drive, you can at least recover your important work.

There you go, fellow Internet users. Your lives now have an extra complexity as you add one more cleaning habit to your weekly routine. The good news is: once you build a regular scan-and-detect habit, then spyware and malware will be reduced to a mere annoyance, and you can get back to the business of enjoying the Internet! Personally, I think of it as having one more room in my house to dust and vacuum. Keep the faith, fellow webbies... the Internet is too important to let these malware programmers win!

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