How To Explain Spyware To A Five-Year-Old

Duncan MacRae is former editor and now a contributor to TechWeekEurope. He previously edited Computer Business Review's print/digital magazines and CBR Online, as well as Arabian Computer News in the UAE.

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The definitive definition of spyware from the experts for the kids (and grown ups, too)

Greg Day, VP & CTO, EMEA, FireEye

“You have a secret, but you’re never going to tell anyone. You write it in your secret diary that only you know where it’s hidden, yet someone knows where you have been hiding it and they have access to all you most prized secrets. This is like when a baddy uses a thing called spyware to access your computer to look at what you have hidden on there.”

ninjaMark Parker, senior product manager, iSheriff

“Spyware is like a bad ninja. It sneaks into your device without you ever knowing it. While it is there, it snoops around spying on you. Figuring out your secret passwords, and your secret hiding places. Once it knows what your passwords are, and where all of your valuables are hidden it will sneak all of that out to criminals.”

Catalin Cosoi, chief security strategist at Bitdefender

“Think of spyware as someone you are introduced to by a common friend. This someone, let’s call him John, seems like a quiet guy who doesn’t stand out. He doesn’t talk much and he doesn’t look suspicious either, however, after you’ve met him, you’ll soon realise that he constantly follows you. He’s always behind you, watching everything you do and listening to your every conversation. What’s more, he tells everything he learns from watching you to someone you have never met; a total stranger.

“Spyware behaves in a similar way, as it sometimes piggybacks on legitimate applications to get inside your computer, from where it starts “listening” and “watching” to everything you do. It then broadcasts this information to a third party that can use it for various nefarious purposes.”

Charles Sweeney, CEO, Bloxx

“Spyware is a way to steal secrets from somebody else’s computer that they want to keep private.

“Imagine that you wanted to know what one of your friends did when they went home after school, so you gave them a magic teddy bear. They thought it was an ordinary teddy, but every night after they had played with it, it would tell you what they had been doing. This is how spyware works, but on a computer. It looks like a normal computer programme, but in secret is giving you information from someone else’s computer without them knowing about it.”

monster under bedKeith Graham, CTO, SecureAuth

“Spyware is the scary monster silently hiding under your bed. He watches your every move and listens for interesting things that your parents say. He wants to hear things like when Mummy and Daddy are going to the bank or are using their credit card to buy things! He sends all the things he hears back to the evil monster king. The evil monster king uses those things to steal from your parents or to make your parents do things they don’t want to do!”

Gert-Jan Schenk, vice president EMEA at Lookout

“Spyware is like playing hide and capture. It finds a good way to hide on your device – sometimes hiding within a game on your phone or a message – and it stays put, waiting to collect and capture information it overhears on your device. The thing is, it does such a good job of hiding, you often never even know it was there, secretly listening to you in the first place.”

Sian John, chief security strategist, EMEA, Symantec

“Spyware does exactly what the name implies. It’s malware designed to spy on you, or to be more precise to record everything you do on your computer. While it can be used for legitimate purposes, the majority of spyware is malicious and aims to capture passwords, banking credentials and credit card details, which are then routed back to the cyber criminals. All of this is done without the victim even realising they are infected.

“Spyware usually ‘piggybacks’ onto a user installing an infected piece of free software onto their computer, and starts collecting data from the user’s activities in the background. The user can also be tricked into installing the spyware through a Trojan horse – a program designed to breach security by appearing to perform legitimate functions – as well as it pretending to be a free piece of security software.”

Paul Briault, senior director, solution sales at CA Technologies UK

“Spyware is a computer programme that acts like a secret agent on a mission to gather information completely unnoticed by his or her target. Every secret agent needs special gadgets and gizmos to do their job well, such as a laser pen to cut through glass, x-ray glasses to see through walls or a badge that records what they are seeing to gather information. They will use special tactics to collect as much information as possible without being spotted. The best agents will hide in the air vents, use a hidden microphone to record conversations or take pictures from a hidden location. Once an agent has all this information, he or she would secretly share it with their agency, who will then use it against the target. Spyware programmes act in a similar way to a secret agent.”

Amichai Shulman, co-founder & CTO of Imperva

“Everybody is using their computers today in order to do important stuff. Kids use it for their games, adults use it for work and banking. Bad guys are after the important stuff we keep in our computer. Imagine that someone gets into your Minecraft account, destroys everything you’ve built and takes away all your weapons and gold! Bad guys cannot physically get to our computer because we are safe at home. So they sometimes send us messages or create games and things that look fun in the Internet so we try to use them. In reality these are traps that work inside our computer to collect everything that we have and send it through the Internet back to the bad guys.”

cyber criminalCsaba Krasznay, product manager of Shell Control Box at BalaBit

“Imagine a criminal behind the computer who wants to rob your money from your home. In real life he breaks up your lock, comes into your house and steals all of your valuable belongings. The same thing happens in your computer.

“When buying something on the internet we use our passwords and credit card data. These are the “valuable belongings” I mentioned before. The criminal sends his “agent” to your computer which steals passwords and card data. This agent is the spyware. As in real life, criminals don’t try to burgle houses with many locks on the door and a watchdog in the garden. But if you let your door open, lose your key with your address written on it, you make the bad guys’ life easy. If you click on every shiny advertisement and funny video on your parents’ computer or tablet, you open up the doors to the internet. So, please keep it in mind -to keep the doors closed.”

Mark James, security specialist at internet security firm ESET

“Spyware is software on your phone or computer that could enable others to see the private things in your life – which should remain private. It may or may not be on the device with your permission and could be installed secretly from another application you actually do want to install. Some things you or your friends do on your computer could be used to build a picture of what you do and do not do and again this should be limited to your actual friends or family.”

Chris McIntosh, CEO, ViaSat UK

“Imagine you are in your room playing with your favourite toy and go to the kitchen to get a glass of milk, but when you come back the toy has been moved to the other side of the room. You look around but can’t see anyone, so you ask your mum and dad if they moved your toy and they tell you not to be silly. You then realise that it must be someone else, and check every room in the house but can’t see anyone. Spyware is like an invisible boy that wants to play with your toys and comes into your house without you noticing. He can come through the back door or just walk in the front door without anybody noticing and doesn’t ask permission. You should lock your toys away when you’re not using them, so that he cannot play with them; and that’s what encryption is.”

Tony Anscombe, senior security evangelist at AVG Technologies

“Imagine being able to wear an invisibility cloak that allows you to move around and watch what other people do and say, without them knowing you’re there – just like Harry Potter. When we use the internet, there are some baddies that use their own kind of invisibility cloak to hide on our computers or tablets and watch what we do. This is called ‘spyware’.
They hide in their spyware invisibility cloaks until they can find some personal information about us – like your parents’ bank details or secret passwords – and then use them to buy things without us knowing. It’s just like someone sneaking into your room to take your pocket money and then using it to buy sweets that you cannot share.”

Piers Wilson, product manager for Huntsman Security

“Sometimes people want to see what you’re doing on your computer, phone or iPad so they see what you are typing or where you are looking at on the Internet. They might install an app that watches everything you do, like what videos you watch, what you type in, what you download or what games you play, and sends the information back to them. That could include all your secret passwords, pictures, friends so you need to make sure you can spot when one of these apps might be watching you. One way is to see if the computer, phone or iPad is doing anything strange: even if it’s a tiny little difference to how it normally works, it might mean something is on there that shouldn’t be.”

smart meterTerry Greer-King, director of cybersecurity, Cisco UKI

“Spyware is the general term also used for adware, and refers to a program used by companies to ‘spy’ on users’ online surfing habits, usually for research and advertising purposes. It has become a pervasive, widespread problem causing a significant reduction in user productivity. The threat is increasing, as nowadays hackers and online identity thieves are exploiting spyware programs to record passwords and other confidential information such as users’ banking details, corporate data and more.

“Key ways to prevent spyware include: only downloading from trustworthy sites, carefully reading any freeware licensing agreements, keep systems updated and patched and ensure web browser security is set to the highest level. It is also essential to block pop-ups and suspicious outbound connections via the firewall, and to use secure solutions that are designed to detect infections and prevent them from being installed.”

Ian Hood, MD at Babel PR

“You know that sometimes when you say you’ve done nothing wrong but mummy and daddy absolutely know you have? You must remember when you drew a picture of a house on the sofa with felt tip pen. We knew you did that because we keep an eye on you without you knowing that we are. That’s what spyware does on a computer – it keeps an eye on you and what you are doing without you knowing about it, sometimes just for fun and sometimes so it can tell mummy or daddy (or someone else).”

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