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8 telltale signs your system has been infiltrated by spyware

Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunication equipment company and now the second-largest smartphone manufacturer, has been at the center of a growing trade dispute between the United States and China. The spiraling crisis is hinged on allegations that Huawei’s hardware is bugged with sophisticated spyware that allows the Chinese government and its proxies to spy on governments, organizations, and individuals around the world (see this CNET timeline of events for more information of the Huawei saga).

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The merits of the accusation notwithstanding, spyware is a risk that governments, businesses, and individuals have to contend with daily. Spyware is an extremely dangerous form of malware since it can record every activity you perform on the device. That includes the applications used, websites visited, chat messages sent, documents opened, items printed, and practically every single keystroke. Spyware could be hardware or software. Of the two, hardware-based spyware is much harder to detect.

Whereas the very essence of spyware is stealth, secrecy, concealment, and undetectability, there are spyware signs you should look out for that would indicate your device is infected.

1. Rapid battery power loss

Spyware is designed to be hidden from view. Nevertheless, you cannot prevent spyware from utilizing system resources including power. So, if your battery drains unusually fast, it could be because there’s an app running in the background that is capturing everything you do. Of course, rapid battery drain could be caused by other factors such as an aging battery or a recently installed heavy-duty app. So, the key here is looking for a stark, unexplainable variation from the norm. After using a laptop, tablet, or smartphone for a couple of weeks, you’ll have become familiar with how long it takes before the battery’s power to be exhausted.

2. Random reboots and shutdowns

Some spyware will initiate a reboot or shutdown without your explicit permission. It does this to reset itself, circumvent a security control, or to better embed itself in your device. If your device has been stable and relatively normal before but now experiences random reboots, spyware could be to blame. That being said, an unstable, newly installed application could also cause this. To make sure, first patch your operating system with the latest updates. Next, systematically uninstall new apps starting with the most recent. If the reboots continue, consider spyware as the most likely suspect.

3. Blue screen of death

The dreaded Windows’ blue screen of death (BSoD) could be a sign of spyware. The rogue application may have introduced conflict in the operating system that results in instability. A BSoD is usually accompanied by an explanation and/or an error code that states what the problem could be. You could investigate this error to ascertain whether the cause is straightforward and easily resolvable. If you’ve done everything realistically possible to get rid of it but it still comes up, your system just may be spyware-infected.

4. Strange emails and text messages

Since spyware gathers enormous quantities of personal information from your everyday activities, the attacker can quickly tell what your phone number and email address is. With that, you may begin to receive strange text messages and emails. The interesting thing about the emails is they’ll likely be cleared by your service provider’s or email server’s spam filter and therefore land in your primary inbox. They could be phishing messages or simply strange URLs that escalate the attacker’s control once you click on them.

5. High data traffic

You aren’t always in control of your device’s data traffic. OS updates, antivirus updates, app updates, apps pinging their servers, and messaging apps checking for new notifications are all just examples of things that take place on your device without your prompting. So, traffic peaks and troughs are completely normal. Nevertheless, keep an eye on an unexplainable yet predictable (such as every Monday or Friday) or persistent surge in traffic. The role of spyware is to collect information. For this data collection to realize its objective, the spyware must send the captured information to the attacker who deployed it in the first place. Spyware will, therefore, generate data traffic as it transmits the information via the Internet to the recipient.

Check your device’s data usage on a weekly or monthly basis so you have a rough idea of ‘normal data usage’ and thus easier detect a traffic surge.

6. Activity when the computer isn’t in use

Your computer or laptop would usually have at least two LED indicators. The first shows that the device is on. It remains lit for as long as the device is powered. The second is the activity indicator and flickers whenever the processor is in use. When your device is idle, the activity indicator should light in brief seldom bursts and not the extended illumination that demonstrates heavy use. If you notice this LED lighting frequently or for extended periods when you are not using the device, it could indicate that someone or something is up to no good. And the culprit may just be spyware.

7. Delayed shutdown

Computing devices have come a long way from their early days when switching a computer on or off would take five to 10 minutes if you are lucky (and more than that if you weren’t). Device manufacturers and OS developers understand that the startup and shutdown processes must be executed with urgency since it’s assumed the user is keen on getting down to using the device or doing something else.

It’s rare to come across a computer or smartphone that takes longer than a minute to shut down nowadays. Delayed shutdown is a sign that something untoward could be happening to your device with one of the most likely culprits being spyware.

8. Unexpected popups with urgent messages

Popups are a legitimate form of messaging and information. However, be on the lookout for popups accompanied by urgent messaging. Ironically, spyware popups will often falsely warn you about a serious malware infection. They’ll urge you to click on one or more dialogue windows that follow to resolve the problem. This is a deceptive move though and is meant to trick you into installing more malware are granting more permissions.

In a nutshell, unusual popups are an indicator that spyware already on your system is looking to escalate its privileges.

Spyware signs signal a formidable adversary

Spyware is perhaps the most potent form of malware. It doesn’t seek to corrupt your files or sabotage your device. Rather it collects sensitive confidential information and could exploit it for fraud, identity theft, or extortion. By keeping track of these spyware signs, you’ll be halfway there to ensuring your device isn’t spyware infested.

Featured image: Pixabay

Stephen M.W.

Stephen regularly writes about technology, business continuity, compliance and project management. He's worked with companies such as Canva.com, EnergyCentral.com, and Citibank.

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Stephen M.W.

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