You are here: What are spyware, adware, keyloggers, trackware, hijackers and root kits?

What are spyware, adware, keyloggers, trackware, hijackers and root kits?

What are computer spyware and adware?

Related to viruses, worms, trojans and botnets are computer spyware and adware. Any software that collects information on the user without his or her knowledge is a computer spyware program. This software usually transmits the information (email addresses, passwords, URLs visited, credit card details) gathered via the Internet to a third-party.

Most applications use the data collected for advertising purposes, whilst others write computer spyware programs to collect data and, once collected, to sell that data to third parties. Spyware programs are usually bundled as a hidden component of freeware or shareware that are downloaded through the Internet.

Computer spyware programs also uses up PC memory and other resources, while also affecting your bandwidth by sending all the collected data through your Internet connection. This often leads to crashes or general system instability.

ISTbar is an example of a rampant low threat spyware program that installs other adware and spyware programs while displaying pop-ups adverts from adult sites, changing your Internet explorer homepage to, and adding a toolbar to your Internet Explorer.

While computer spyware is illegitimate, adware is perfectly legal. Sometimes software companies offer their programs, games or utilities free of charge with sponsored links, or adverts offering products, until you pay to register (and remove the adverts). In most cases you will be able to use the full features of the product, but you will be unable to disable the adverts until you purchase a registration key.

This is a legitimate source of revenue for companies offering their software free to users (for example, Eudora). However, while Eudora in its sponsored mode is not malicious, others track your habits and provide information about you to other people. Remember that those software terms and conditions, that you read through so carefully, may actually give software firms fairly substantial rights to access the data on your machine, quite legitimately.

What are keyloggers, hijackers and trackware?

Keyloggers or trackware are often considered as computer spyware programs in that they are applications that record your keystrokes (on your keyboard) in an encrypted log file. Keyloggers can record instant messages, emails and any information that you are typing at the time. Some even record email addresses you use and the websites you visit, however the most dangerous information they recover are passwords, potentially completely compromising your security.

These surveillance tools will send information to other parties without your knowledge. Hijackers change user information such as browser home and search pages, interfering with search pages. Some programs allow hackers to actually hijack your system completely.

What are denial of service (DoS) Attacks?

DoS Attacks are designed flood networks (including the Internet) with useless traffic. To Internet Service Providers, for example, this means that their service network which connects hundreds of thousands of users to the Internet is brought to a halt for a number of hours.

DoS attacks are a popular tool for criminal to completely compromise target sites. Using a botnet of zombie machines, or some other network of servers, hackers will choose a victim and bombard the site with traffic. This will overload the site’s servers crashing the webpage. Some victims are attacked in the name of pure mischief, while others will attempt to blackmail an online firm, threatening to take them off the Internet. Even whole countries are not immune, at last year’s attack on Estonia demonstrates.

What are root kits?

Recently, a friend of mine told me a story of how, last year, her network was threatened when hackers breached her web-hosting system with the intent of searching for and stealing credit card details. These hackers installed what is called a root kit which overwrites certain operating system files with the hacker's version of the program.

In simple terms a root kit changes the operating system of the affected computers to bypass certain security restrictions and controls. Originally rootkits modified the system security settings to give programmers “root”(or privileged) access to the affected system, however changes made may not necessarily be to the operating system, nor may they be criminal.

Once the root kit is installed onto the system, the hackers will kill the original processes to start their own. If reboots are needed, hackers may trick administrators into thinking that a critical system has become unstable - so the administrator would reboot the system. When the computer is restarted, the hacker's program is loaded and the critical operating system files are at the mercy of the hackers to do as they bid.

The conclusion of all of this is that computer spyware programs and other kinds of malicious software are a threat to all of us, either directly, by compromising the security of your system, or indirectly by making life easier for the net criminals who are a menace to us all. The responsibility, therefore, lies on all of us, to make sure that we don’t harbor computer spyware, or malware, on our systems.