The Difference Between Malware and Spyware 

During my first semester in college my personal laptop got hit with some sort of spam or virus that interrupted my work with frequent, annoying, and sometimes malicious pop-ups.

I could not figure out what was happening or why my laptop was seemingly opening web pages on it’s own. (I’m old enough that I wasn’t using a laptop in high school, so cybersecurity was an entirely new thing for me.) Thankfully, I was able to take it to the free computer lab on campus and they were able to remove whatever malware was infecting my computer, in addition to installing a better antivirus system free of charge! While it was fantastic having a free solution right on campus, I was without my laptop for a few days and I could have incurred serious personal damage, such as loss of financial information, needing to purchase a new laptop, or identity theft! I still don’t know what infected my laptop, or how it gained access, but it was definitely some kind of malware.

Malware is an overarching term that covers malicious code that can infiltrate your personal device through a virus, adware, spyware, trojans, and worms. It is any kind of code that is created to harm your computer or steal your personal information. Spyware is specifically a type of malware that is particularly insidious because it covertly steals sensitive personal information, often for identity theft or to sell to unauthorized third parties. 

In short, spyware is malware, but not all malware behaves as spyware. Clear as mud? Let’s dive into different types of malware. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are common types of malware that can threaten your small business. 


Common Types of Malware and Spyware


A virus is a computer code that inserts itself into a program and then forces that program to take malicious action.


Worms reproduce and spread from computer to computer. They are a self-replicating system, which means they don’t require a user to unknowingly launch an infected code. 


Referencing the Trojan horse that the Greeks created to launch the downfall of Troy, these are malicious programs that masquerade or camouflage themselves as a common program in order to trick a user into activating it and spreading damage.


As mentioned above, this is a program that secretly gathers data from unsuspecting users. A common form of spyware is a keylogger, which is commonly used to steal passwords.


A rootkit is used to gain root access or control over a system while simultaneously hiding their presence in that system, making it difficult to detect. For example, a rootkit can remove it’s own files from a security query.


Adware forces your browser to direct to malicious web ads, often attached to sites that offer programs like free games or browser extensions, which then direct you to malicious sites. 


This encrypts your hard drive files so that a cybercriminal can demand payment for releasing your data. Payment is usually demanded through untraceable systems like bitcoin. An offshoot of ransomware is scareware, which mimics the look of ransomware by tricking your browser to redirect in loops. It can be relatively easy to disable, unlike true ransomware which cannot be decrypted without a key from the cybercriminal.


Some cybercriminals purchase ad space on legitimate websites, and then create malicious code within that ad. Anyone who clicks on the ad, thinking they are on a safe site, will unknowingly activate a code which then installs malware onto their computer.


This is most commonly used through emails, which directs users to enter personal information into a fake website that cleverly mimics a legitimate one. (We’ll touch on this in greater detail in an upcoming article.)

This PC Mag article has another great breakdown of the different kinds of malware, categorizing them by both methods of replication and behavior. It also makes the important distinction that these threats can fall under multiple categories, which is why it is important to have a security solution that takes multiple approaches to protecting your system.

Which brings us to…



Using a standard firewall and free antivirus isn’t good enough on it’s own. You need to have both anti-malware and anti-spyware installed on your small business systems.

Cybercriminals are getting savvier about monetizing their crime, and while they can wreak havoc with a virus, they can’t make money off of it. It is becoming far more common for hackers and cybercriminals to use malware and spyware that they can then make a profit off of. 

A comprehensive protection plan should include a firewall, antivirus, anti-malware, and anti-ransom software. It is crucial for small businesses to use software that can both monitor internal systems in addition to detecting malware when it does breach your network defenses. (And if you want to get into the nitty-gritty details of antivirus software, this article mentioned four labs that regularly release detailed reports, in addition to a comprehensive list breaking down the best defense systems for 2021.)

As we’ve mentioned in other articles, security isn’t just a one-and-done set up. You need to do regular scans to ensure that each component of your security plan is working at peak level, in addition to running regular software updates as they are released.


Best Practices for Malware and Spyware

In addition to comprehensive security software, you can also protect your data by having multiple back-ups in place, a data recovery plan with a clear chain-of-command in place to handle the recovery process, and encrypting your data. That last one is especially important because if your data is encrypted, it will be rendered useless and unusable to hackers and cybercriminals in the event of a major security breach.

Comprehensive and consistent employee training is also an important line of defense to protect your small business. Part of your employee training should be to include and enforce an equipment use policy. 

Consider: Can work computers be used for personal use? What programs and plug-ins are approved for installation? Will you require regular maintenance, scans, and back-ups on each individual device? These are especially important to consider as teams are most likely working remotely, and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

You’ll want to consider additional measures that relate to your specific line of business, have clear communication about your expectations, and include them in employee training during your onboarding process. There also needs to be a process in place for recovering work devices and immediately terminating access to sensitive programs upon an employee’s departure from your small business, especially if that departure happens under difficult circumstances such as firing.

Your best course of action to protect your small business data is to select the best protection software you can afford, update it frequently, make security training a regular part of your company culture, and schedule a free security assessment with Tech Masters today!

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“A comprehensive protection plan should include a firewall, antivirus, anti-malware, and anti-ransom software.

The Difference Between Malware and Spyware malware

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