Spyware vs. Stalkerware: What's the difference?

Spyware vs. Stalkerware: What's the difference?
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There are so many different kinds of malware out there today that it’s easy to get confused about what each type actually does. This is the case with spyware and stalkerware, as one may assume they are one and the same. But is this true? What are the differences and similarities between these two kinds of malware?

What is spyware?

Spyware is generally more well-known than stalkerware and has proven to be a very dangerous kind of malware. Spyware often infects a device via the installation of a malicious app that has disguised itself as harmless. This means you could unknowingly infect your device with malware by downloading a malicious file from the web.

Spyware can also be spread to a device via phishing emails. In such a scenario, a cybercriminal will send their target a deceptive email with some kind of download link that they will claim is legitimate. However, using this link will result in the installation of spyware on the victim’s device, often without them even realizing it. 

In any case, once spyware has infected a device, it can put a person’s data and safety at risk. 

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This is because spyware is designed to track your activity on whatever device, or devices, it has spread to. This could be the websites you visit on a daily basis, the people you communicate with, and the applications you use. Additionally, an attacker can view your login details for various accounts by tracking your online activity in this way. 

This kind of all-encompassing tracking can put a victim in real danger, as there’s no limit to what kind of data an attacker can get their hands on. Payment details, social media logins, sensitive files, and other confidential data become vulnerable whenever spyware is present. 

Once an attacker has retrieved your activity and data, they can use it in a myriad of ways. Firstly, if the attacker has gotten a hold of your contact details, such as your email address or phone number, they could use it to conduct harmful communications with you. This could range from harassing you with phone calls to deceiving you with phishing emails. 

Alternatively, the attacker may choose to sell your data on illegal platforms, which are usually located on the dark web. Today, the dark web is rife with cybercriminals looking to buy your data for exploitation. Social security numbers, home addresses, contact details, and other sensitive data can all be found for sale on this malicious marketplace.

So, it’s safe to say that spyware can be a hugely damaging piece of software, and can put victims in real danger. But is it really that different from stalkerware?

What is stalkerware? 

While spyware and stalkerware are not the same, they do share some close similarities. Of course, spyware and stalkerware are both types of malware that are used to track a person’s activity on a device. 

However, stalkerware is considered a more personal way of invading someone’s privacy. This is because stalkerware has to be physically installed, meaning the attacker has to have direct access to whichever of the victim’s devices they’re trying to infiltrate. Therefore, stalkerware is generally used by someone who knows the victim, such as a parent or partner. 

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Stalkerware programs are also less likely to disguise themselves as something else entirely. Sometimes they may claim to be child protection apps or similar, but their intent is always malicious, as they invade someone’s privacy by monitoring their activity. 

With stalkerware installed on their target’s device, an individual can activate their camera or microphone, view their login details to different accounts, and even intercept phone calls. 

However, those who use stalkerware aren’t usually looking to exploit a victim’s data. Because stalkerware is often used by jealous or possessive relatives and partners, the goal lies more within tracking someone’s activity instead of retrieving their sensitive information. That said, the ability to view everything a person does without their consent can lead to some very dangerous outcomes. 

Now that we’ve discussed the dynamics and risks associated with spyware and stalkerware, let’s take a look at how you can steer clear of these illicit programs. 

How to avoid spyware and stalkerware 

Though it is difficult to guarantee that you’ll never be troubled by spyware and stalkerware, there are many things you can do to lower the chance of this happening.

Firstly, we recommend that you have some kind of antivirus software installed on all of your devices. While you may think that only your computer or laptop requires antivirus protection, your smartphone or tablet are just as susceptible to infection, too. Many antivirus subscriptions offer multi-device cover, so check to see if your existing plan offers this, or whether you can find a provider that does. 

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On top of this, it’s always a good idea to keep your device’s operating system as up to date as possible. It’s easy to put off giving your device a software update as it can take a little time, but having the most recent upgrade can improve your security levels. 

Additionally, you should always be wary of what you choose to download online. Malicious links are one of the key ways through which spyware (and most other kinds of malware) is installed on a device, so it’s always worth using some kind of link-checking website (like Norton Safe Web (opens in new tab)) to confirm whether any given link is safe or not. Email attachments can also pose a risk to your device’s security, so be wary of which you choose to download onto your device. 

You should also ensure that your devices are always protected from entry by unauthorized users. Equipping your devices with a password, fingerprint login, or similar adds an extra layer of protection, and could be particularly defensive against stalkerware (as it cannot be remotely installed). 

Spyware and stalkerware can both pose risks to your safety 

When spyware and stalkerware are present on any of your devices, your private information and activity can immediately become viewable by unauthorized and potentially dangerous parties. This is why it’s so important to equip your devices with as much protection as possible, and always be vigilant about what you choose to open and download online. To give yourself the upper hand, check out the best VPN services and the best password managers.