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Issue Date: October 2007

Spyware through the ages

October 2007
Chris van Niekerk, regional director: Africa at McAfee

With the proliferation of communication tools, spyware has exploded as a tool used by hackers to track and steal personal data.

Spying can be traced back to the ancient writings of Sun Tzu. The second-century B.C.E. Chinese military general and strategist taught lessons on deception and subversion in 'The Art of War' that are still studied today. Although the purpose of spying remains the same, the manner in which it is conducted has evolved immensely since Sun Tzu.
Date privacy and protection is now a concern for business.
'Spyware' is a term familiar to technology security gurus and the public alike. Initially a primitive way to obtain information about a web surfer's activity, spyware now encompasses a host of software technologies that are designed to illicitly gather data. This rapid change brings new possibilities for abuse and exploitation. As people become more connected, there is a risk that awareness of these threats will lag behind reality.
Furthermore, new spyware technology can sometimes surpass the planning of engineers, opening new fronts for attack.
As PCs and laptops becomes more secure, cyber criminals have moved their attentions towards popular, new technology in an attempt to prey upon users that have their guard down when it comes to new devices. With increasingly high levels of security on work and home PCs users expect a certain level of security in built in all devices but this is often not the case with technology that has grown in popularity quickly before security can catch up.
Anyone who has used instant messaging software will agree that there is a very conversational feel to its immediate, give-and-take responses leading to a misperception about the level of security and cause users to forget the myriad opportunities for interception and recording. This informal social aspect arguably makes the medium more of a potential risk than e-mail. Many businesses are also now implementing instant messaging as part of their communications solutions providing another new vector for spying.
Businesses, particularly financial institutions, are beginning to recognise the security concerns presented by instant messaging.
Social networking sites are also fertile ground for spyware. The ability to leverage implicit trust between users is a key aspect of the medium.
Beyond correlating data about the users, such sites could become vectors for spyware or other threats in the same way that e-mail worms propagate now and there is an element of user responsibility in terms of security.
With the proliferation of new communication tools that are growing in popularity, the need for adequate security for these devices increases at the same time. Just as these tools provide us with many positive possibilities, they are also opening up new opportunities to surreptitiously monitor and gather data. Maintaining security in such a rapidly changing and complex environment requires awareness, diligence, and imagination.
Any popular technology deserves detailed scrutiny, as it offers an attractive target to those who would exploit it. In spite of the persistence of spyware, if vigilance is maintained and users are kept informed, the benefits of new technology can be reaped while thwarting would-be thieves and intruders.

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