Spyware is a general term used to describe software that performs certain behaviors, generally without appropriately obtaining your consent first, such as:
- Collecting personal information
- Changing the configuration of your computer
Spyware is often associated with software that displays advertisements (called adware) or software that tracks personal or sensitive information.
Trading tracking for services
That does not mean all software that provides ads or tracks your online activities is bad. For example, you might sign up for a free music service, but you “pay” for the service by agreeing to receive targeted ads. If you understand the terms and agree to them, you may have decided that it is a fair tradeoff. You might also agree to let the company track your online activities to determine which ads to show you.
What spyware does
Other kinds of spyware make changes to your computer that can be annoying and can cause your computer slow down or crash.
These programs can change your web browser’s home page or search page, or add additional components to your browser you don’t need or want. They also make it very difficult for you to change your settings back to the way you had them.
Know what you’re installing
The key in all cases is whether or not you (or someone who uses your computer) understand what the software will do and have agreed to install the software on your computer.
A common trick is to covertly install the software during the installation of other software you want such as a music or video file sharing program.
Whenever you install something on your computer, make sure you carefully read all disclosures, including the license agreement and privacy statement. Sometimes the inclusion of unwanted software in a given software installation is documented, but it might appear at the end of a license agreement or privacy statement.
There are a number of ways spyware or other unwanted software can get on your computer.
How to prevent spyware
Spyware and other unwanted software can
- Invade your privacy
- Bombard you with pop-up windows
- Slow down your computer
- Make your computer crash
Here are several ways you can help protect your computer against spyware and other unwanted software.
Step 1: Use a firewall
While most spyware and other unwanted software come bundled with other programs or originate from unscrupulous websites, a small amount of spyware can actually be placed on your computer remotely by hackers. Installing a firewall or using the firewall that’s built into Windows Vista and Windows XP provides a helpful defense against these hackers.
To learn more about firewalls, read What is a firewall and get answers to your Frequently Asked Questions about firewalls.
Step 2: Update your software
Visit Microsoft Update to confirm that you have automatic updating turned on and that you’ve downloaded and installed all the latest critical and security updates.
Step 3: Adjust Internet Explorer security settings
You can adjust your Internet Explorer web browser’s security settings to determine how much-or how little-information you want to accept from a website.
Microsoft recommends that you set the security settings for the Internet zone to Medium or higher. (If you use Windows 7, Windows Vista or Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) and you use Internet Explorer to browse the web, your browser security settings for the Internet zone are set to Medium by default.)
To view your current Internet Explorer security settings:
- In Internet Explorer, click Tools (in Internet Explorer 9, click the gear icon) and then click Internet Options.
- Select the Security tab
Internet Explorer also includes a number of features to help protect against spyware and many other kinds of deceptive or unwanted software.
Step 4: Download and install antispyware protection
Microsoft Security Essentials helps protects your computer from spyware and other unwanted software. It’s available as a no-cost download for Windows XP SP2 and higher, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. For more information, see Help protect your PC with Microsoft Security Essentials.
Step 5: Surf and download more safely
The best defense against spyware and other unwanted software is not to download it in the first place. Here are a few helpful tips that can protect you from downloading software you don’t want:
- Only download programs from websites you trust. If you’re not sure whether to trust a program you are considering downloading, enter the name of the program into your favorite search engine to see if anyone else has reported that it contains spyware.
- Read all security warnings, license agreements, and privacy statements associated with any software you download.
- Never click “Agree” or “OK” to close a window. Instead, click the red “x” in the corner of the window or press Alt + F4 on your keyboard to close a window.
- Be wary of popular “free” music and movie file-sharing programs, and be sure you understand all of the software packaged with those programs.
- Use a standard user account instead of an administrator account. For more information, see Why use a standard account instead of an administrator account.
If your computer starts to behave strangely, you might have spyware or other unwanted software installed on your computer.
- I see pop-up advertisements all the time. Some unwanted software will bombard you with pop-up ads that aren’t related to a particular website you’re visiting.These ads are often for adult or other websites you may find objectionable. If you see pop-up ads as soon as you turn on your computer or when you’re not even browsing the web, you might have spyware or other unwanted software on your computer.
- My settings have changed and I can’t change them back to the way they were. Some unwanted software can change your home page or search page settings. Even if you adjust these settings, you might find that they revert back every time you restart your computer.
- My web browser contains additional components that I don’t remember downloading. Spyware and other unwanted software can add toolbars to your web browser that you don’t want or need. Even if you remove these toolbars, they might return each time you restart your computer.
- My computer seems sluggish. Spyware and other unwanted software are not designed to be efficient. The resources these programs use to track your activities and deliver advertisements can slow down your computer and errors in the software can make your computer crash. If you notice a sudden increase in the number of times a certain program crashes, or if your computer is slower than normal at performing routine tasks, you may have spyware or other unwanted software on your machine.
How to remove spyware
Many kinds of unwanted software, including spyware, are designed to be difficult to remove. If you try to uninstall this software like any other program, you might find that the program reappears as soon as you restart your computer.
Where to get antispyware software
If you’re having trouble uninstalling unwanted software, you might need a tool to do the job for you. Microsoft Security Essentials is a free consumer anti-malware solution that will help you remove spyware. It also helps protect your computer from spyware, viruses, and other malicious software. It’s available as a no-cost download for Windows XP SP2 and higher, Windows Vista, and Windows 7.
Several other companies also offer free and low-cost software that will check your computer for spyware and other unwanted software and help you remove it.
Keep in mind that removing unwanted software with these tools might mean you will no longer be able to use a free program that came with the spyware.
Beware of fake antispyware software
Cyber criminals know that we want to keep our computers safe from spyware. They will often try to trick us with fake security software known as “rogue security software” or “scareware.” This is software that appears to be beneficial from a security perspective but provides limited or no security, generates misleading alerts, or attempts to lure you into participating in fraudulent transactions